China’s Crackdowns in Tibet

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China’s Crackdowns in Tibet

Rights groups are pushing for international action on the serial use of lethal force to crush Buddhist dissent.

China’s Crackdowns in Tibet
Credit: Kevin Holden

The United Nations is set to receive evidence that Chinese People’s Armed Police troops have repeatedly opened fire on unarmed Tibetan protesters calling for religious freedom over the past seven years.

Evidence of deadly attacks by the Chinese paramilitary on Buddhist demonstrators across the Tibetan Plateau – provided by witnesses, whistleblowers, and a secret government document smuggled out of Tibet – will be presented to the UN’s Committee against Torture later this year.

International human rights groups, working with figures inside Tibet who aim to expose these killings internationally, will gather in Geneva in November for the UN hearing.

“The usage of live ammunition against peaceful Tibetan protestors does exist and it is also disproportionate,” Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay, the head of Tibet’s government-in-exile, told The Diplomat. “This is clearly in violation of international law,” said the prime minister, a former research fellow at prestigious Harvard Law School who wrote his graduate thesis on Buddhism and Human Rights.

Tsering Tsomo, executive director of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, described the serial shootings of Tibetan protesters as “crimes against humanity.” She said the rights center has amassed powerful evidence that Chinese armed police consistently use overwhelming force to crush pacifist dissent in the former Buddhist kingdom.

In one assault on August 12 of last year, witnesses reported that troops fired into an assembly of protesters who were calling for the release of a detained religious and cultural leader in the village of Kardze; four of the 10 demonstrators who were shot were also arrested.

Denied medical treatment for their bullet wounds, each of these captured protesters died over the course of the next five days, Tsomo said.

She added that witnesses to armed crackdowns on Tibetan demonstrators face immense risks in reporting the incidents to the outside world.

“Intense government surveillance of communication channels,” she explained, has caused Tibetans to “get disappeared, tortured, detained and imprisoned on charges of violating China’s “state secrets” law when all they did was share information about human rights violations.”

The Tibetan Center for Human Rights that Tsomo heads is based in Dharamsala, the ever-expanding sanctuary provided by India‘s government to host the Dalai Lama and a continuous stream of Tibetans who have fled into exile since the People’s Liberation Army marched into their Himalayan homeland in the 1950s.

The center, situated near the western edge of the Tibetan Plateau, has also acquired a classified report issued by the Lhasa Public Security Bureau revealing that Chinese security forces used machine guns to quell initially peaceful protests in March 2008, Tsomo said.

The rights group has published the signed document on its website, and intends to submit it to the 10 international legal experts who lead the UN Committee against Torture.

Grim Details

The government report, secreted out of the Tibetan capital, provides grim details on victims of the People’s Armed Police attack on Buddhist monks, nuns and pilgrims in the Place of the Gods, as Lhasa was traditionally known. Compiled for the Chinese leadership, the document notes that the body of one young Tibetan woman was riddled with 15 bullet holes. A compatriot felled by automatic weapons fire near the Ramoche Temple, in the ancient quarter of Lhasa, was shot 17 times.

This official chronicle of the massive attack on Buddhist demonstrators in central Lhasa in mid-March of 2008 also demonstrates the massive fabrication of “facts” that Communist Party leaders in Tibet and in Beijing presented to the world about how they handled the protests and the cause of deaths linked to the demonstrations, Tsomo pointed out.

Tibet’s party-appointed governor, Qiangba Puncog, told reporters at the time that despite escalating protests, “Security forces did not carry or use any destructive weapons, but tear gas and water cannons were employed.”

The only deaths stemming from the protests, he claimed, were brought about by Tibetan rioters who had torched government buildings and shops across Lhasa. “Thirteen innocent civilians were killed,” he told the world.

The government’s officially published list of these “victims of violent arson attacks” included 30-year-old Lhakpa Tsering and 24-year-old Wangdu Dargay, both of Lhasa.

But the newly uncovered Lhasa security report tells a different story: Both of these residents of the Tibetan capital were listed in this secret chronicle as having been killed by automatic weapons during the paramilitary’s assault on protesters calling for an end to communist controls on Tibet’s monasteries and people.

This leaked document and contemporaneous witness accounts all show that paramilitary troops deployed battle-strength firepower to wipe out civil protests while hiding their actions from the rest of the world, Tsomo explained. (Foreign reporters are routinely barred from traveling inside Tibet, and Lhasa, surrounded by super-high mountains and a heavy military presence, is easy to seal off.

The Chinese paramilitary, backed by armored personnel carriers, killed more than 100 protesters during this assault; more than 5000 Tibetan Buddhists were arrested in a crackdown mounted across the ancient Tibetan capital, she added.

The leaders of China’s Ministry of National Defense states on its official website that: “The People’s Armed Police Force is the state’s shock force in handling public emergencies.”

This component of the Chinese armed forces is deployed to “disperse illegal assemblies,” it adds, and the PAPF joined “operations to handle the “3.14” [March 14, 2008] Lhasa riots.”

“The People’s Armed Police Force is assigned such missions by the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee, the State Council, the Central Military Commission or local Party committees,” the defense ministry leadership states.

The paramilitary’s repeated assaults on protesters are part of a wider, systematic attack on the leaders, symbols and followers of Tibetan Buddhism, said John Gaudette, legal research officer at the Tibetan Center in Dharamsala. In this decades-long battle, he explained, the Communist Party of China has imprisoned Buddhists for possessing images or teachings of the Dalai Lama, orchestrated the enforced disappearance of the Panchen Lama for the last 19 years, destroyed religious symbols including brass prayer wheels and stone shrines across Tibet, and tortured – sometimes until death – clerics who dare to call for the Dalai’s return to Lhasa.

Meanwhile, the president of the Washington, D.C.-based International Campaign for Tibet, Matteo Mecacci, said the four Kardze demonstrators who were shot and held captive until they died last August represent just a fraction of Tibetan political and religious prisoners who have died in detention. Torture pervades China’s web of prisons across Tibet, he claimed, and security agents who cause the death of Tibetans ranging from Buddhist scholars to young lamas are never punished.

China signed the International Convention against Torture in 1988, and its violations of that treaty will be reviewed this year, said Mecacci, a Florentine legal scholar and former member of the Italian parliament who has been a leading advocate of stronger rights protections in the United Nations. He said he will present the International Campaign for Tibet’s evidence on China’s treaty violations – gathered in part from Tibetan political detainees who have escaped into exile – to the UN’s anti-torture group.

In a communiqué to the Chinese government issued in 2008 – just months following the People’s Armed Police mass assault on lama-led dissent – the committee’s legal experts stated they were alarmed about “The failure to investigate the deaths resulting from indiscriminate firing by the police into crowds of reportedly largely peaceful demonstrators in Kardze county, Ngaba county and Lhasa.”

The UN jurists also called on China to allow independent inquiries into these casualties, and into reports of widespread torture of Tibetans detained since the crackdown. Those found responsible for the shooting or torture of peaceful activists, they added, should be prosecuted.

But as Matteo Mecacci and other scholars on human rights point out, the UN’s monitors can only pinpoint violations of the anti-torture agreement and instruct the treaty-breaking state – in this case China – which remedial steps to take to comply with the convention. The UN group – so far – has no power to compel Beijing to follow its instructions, or even to prevent Chinese security forces from shooting or torturing government critics again in the future.

Anti-Rights ‘Model’

China’s routine flouting of UN rights standards and conventions, through the ongoing deployment of armed troops against Buddhist dissidents and those seeking to escape into exile, creates an anti-rights model that can be followed by authoritarian governments around the world. “For a country that is now the second biggest economy in the world to continue to despise international cooperation on human rights issues is embarrassing and dangerous,” added Mecacci.

But the impunity that Chinese party and paramilitary leaders now enjoy inside Tibet and worldwide could soon come to an end if the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act now being debated in the U.S. Congress becomes law.

Passage of this legislation would press President Barack Obama to “impose targeted sanctions for Chinese officials responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture, and other human rights abuses in Tibet,” said Tsering Tsomo.

Matteo Mecacci said the International Campaign for Tibet and its human rights allies aim to work with American legislators for rapid passage of the law, which will bar the world’s biggest rights abusers from entering the U.S. and freeze any assets they have inside the U.S.

The legislation would also function as the first effective deterrent to violating internationally recognized basic rights in Tibet, Mecacci said. Lawmakers across the continents should follow the U.S. lead to draft similar laws aimed at strengthening this deterrent, he added. His group is already pressing for Europe-wide sanctions on rights offenders via ICT’s offices in Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels.

Kaydor Aukatsang, representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to the Americas, said that the introduction of the new American rights bill “sends a powerful message to Chinese officials that human rights abusers will face consequences.”

Aukatsang, a member of the Tibetan government-in-exile, added that crafting a deterrent to China’s human rights crimes in Tibet is so urgent that the U.S. president and State Department should act immediately to begin screening Chinese government and military leaders seeking to enter the U.S. for complicity in attacks on Tibetans and their religion.

“Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army officials responsible for shooting unarmed protesters should face consequences for their actions,” said the Dalai Lama’s envoy, who is based in Washington.

Mecacci agreed, and said one potential legal basis is already in place for tracking and banning those orchestrating assaults in Tibet from crossing American borders. Four years ago, Obama, a former constitutional law professor himself, signed an Executive Order that blocks visas for “perpetrators of serious human rights abuses or humanitarian law,” Mecacci said. This rights-based travel ban, he added, should be expanded across the free world.

Kevin Holden is a freelance journalist based in Asia.