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Saturday, October 17, 1998 Published at 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK

New crackdown on Tibetan monks

Refugees queuing up outside soup kitchens

By Sue Lloyd-Roberts in Lhasa

A visitor to Tibet is advised to visit one of the many monasteries in the country during the midday yak butter tea break.

That way, you were always certain to find a crowd of hundreds of chattering monks, swathed in their burgundy and saffron robes, clutching their metal bowls while cascading down the temple steps - an ideal photo opportunity.

[ image: Sue Lloyd-Roberts:
Sue Lloyd-Roberts: " I had been warned that there was a problem"
Only on this, my fifth visit to Tibet, it didn't work. The monasteries were deserted. I had been warned that there was a problem by the Tibetan communities in exile in India.

Here, the monasteries can barely cope with the new influx of monks and nuns. They have been pouring over the Himalayas in their hundreds, escaping the latest crackdown on religion in Tibet which the Chinese have codenamed "Strike Hard".

I found the refugees queuing up outside soup kitchens, again with metal bowls but with only plain boiled rice to fill them.

The latest arrivals were confined to a bleak reception room where they were being debriefed by community leaders seeking details of the reeducation programme which the Chinese are forcing on every religious institution in Tibet.

"They started a year ago, in the monasteries in Lhasa," a monk told me. He was dressed in a worn, grey suit. He and others said that they'd had to take off their monkish garb to get past the Chinese border guards.

"They said we had to criticise the Dalai Lama and those who refused would be imprisoned. They arrested 800 monks and nuns in the Lhasa area", he said. He came from Amdo, in far Eastern Tibet where the teams of political cadres are now concentrating their efforts.

A nun told me that the Chinese burst in while they were at prayer and told them that if they criticised the Dalai Lama, it would be okay. If they refused, the nunnery would be closed.

She ran away and was caught and imprisoned for eight days. On her release, she escaped to India. She said that other nuns were beaten before being taken off to prison.

[ image: Nuns cutting extracts out of religious books]
Nuns cutting extracts out of religious books
I visited her nunnery in the centre of Lhasa. I had been warned that all religious heads of monasteries and nunneries in Tibet have been replaced by communist party officials and so I did not ask the the nun in charge about the allegations.

In the library, a group of nuns were employed cutting extracts out of religious books. Part of the campaign against the Dalai Lama, I had been told, is to delete all references to him from the scriptures.

At Sera, one of the main monasteries in Lhasa, I was told that all 300 monks were away "on retreat". The vast prayer halls, kitchens and dormitories were empty. Here again, there was activity in the library where a layman was working alone, busy reprinting religious scriptures.

Tibetans say they're perplexed by this latest attack on the Dalai Lama., They believe, that the Chinese are frustrated that, after four decades of religious and political persecution, the Tibetans continue to worship the Dalai Lama and to believe in independence.

By attacking the figureheard of those aspirations, that is, the Dalai Lama, they finally hope to bring the Tibetans to heel.

In the riots of 1987 and 1988 to sporadic protests today, monks and nuns have been at the forefront of political protest.

One monk told me how it's now written up on the walls of every monastery in Tibet that any monk being caught writing or repeating slogans such as "Free Tibet" will be given a seven year prison sentence.

What does the Dalai Lama think?

[ image: The Dalai Lama:
The Dalai Lama: "They are only causing resentment."
As anyone knows who has interviewed the Dalai Lama, it's almost impossible to get an angry response from him about anything, even the continuing Chinese oppression in the land which he was forced to flee 40 years ago.

He is after all, the living presence of the Buddha whose trademark is compassion. He did say that if the Chinese were trying to create stability, they were going about things the wrong way. "They will never succeed with the tactic they are employing," he says. "They are only causing resentment."

He added, diplomatically, that he was sure that this new crackdown had been ordered by authorities at the local level and that the Government in Beijing probably knows nothing about it.

At the evening service at the main temple, the Jokhang in Lhasa, monks blow on their long horns and clash their cymbals in a halfhearted fashion. The temple is one of the main attractions in Lhasa and you get the impression that the show is for the benefit of the tourists.

The Dalai Lama's brother once warned that the aim of the Chinese was to reduce theTibetans to museum items for the benefit of the visitor. For those left behind in Tibet that prophecy is being realised.

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