Tibetans face threats at Kalachakra ceremony

Buddhists gather at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya
Buddhists gather at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya

6th January 2017

Tibetans who travelled to India for the prestigious ritual, conducted by the Dalai Lama, have been ordered home

Tibetans who have travelled to India to observe one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist rituals, Kalachakra, are being forced to return home due to threats from the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama is currently conducting Kalachakra to over 100,000 people in Bodh Gaya, northeast India.

Tibetans from inside Tibet are rarely allowed to travel outside the country, and those attempting to leave face tight border controls and close surveillance. Around 1,000 Tibetans had nevertheless managed to make it to India to attend the Kalachakra teachings, which are taking place between 2 January and 14 January. But Free Tibet’s research partner, Tibet Watch, currently on the ground in Bodh Gaya, has found that Tibetans who have managed to make the journey to India are being told to return or face severe punishment.

 

The Kalachakra ceremony. Tibetan Buddhists believe the ritual will assist them through the cycle of life (kalachakra2017.net)

The Chinese government took several measures last year to prevent Tibetans from travelling to Bodh Gaya. From October 2016 it started imposing restrictions on Tibetans who were holding travel documents with visas in them. Some Tibetans had their travel documents confiscated, while others were ordered to surrender them to local officials or face punishment. In the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu, officials visited Tibetans door-to-door and confiscated their passports. They were told that the documents would be returned to them in March 2017.

From mid-November, in the lead up to Kalachakra, officials began to warn the families of Tibetans who were already in India, or on their way via Nepal, that their travelling relatives should return to Tibet before 20 December 2016.

Tibet Watch has also received information that on 24 December 2016 the Chinese government asked its travel agencies and airlines to cancel travel plans and bookings made for flights to Nepal from several Chinese airports, such as Kunming, until 10 January 2017.

Threats and consequences

Tibet Watch has established that the following threats were passed on to Tibetans who attended the Kalachakra:

- Individuals who applied for a visa (or those who took responsibility for them in their application) will be punished severely

- Relatives of those who attend the Kalachakra will be removed from their posts or will face the risk of losing their government job

- Kalachakra attendees will lose the privileges of education for their children and government aid for three generations

- If more than 10 monks from one monastery have attended the Kalachakra, the residents of the monastery will be subjected to patriotic re-education as collective punishment

- If fewer than 10 monks from one monastery applied for visas, they will be punished individually. The privileges of government aid for three generations will be also lost

 

Tibetans that travelled to previous Kalachakra ceremonies were punished. In 2012, after the Kalachakra teachings in Ladakh, India, all Tibetans from Tibet who attended were sent off for political re-education upon their return. Political re-education in occupied Tibet typically involves those being punished being forced to swear allegiance to China, state that Tibet is part of China and denounce the Dalai Lama.

Tibetans leaving Bodh Gaya to return to Tibet

The threats, passed on by family members, prompted a number of Tibetans travelling overland to Bodh Gaya to return. Many of the Tibetans that had already reached Bodh Gaya also left, days before the start of the Kalachakra initiation.

Interviewees in Bodh Gaya at the Kalachakra have said that there were around a 1,000 Tibetans who had come from Tibet just a few days ago, but now only a few remain there. Sources in Delhi have said that Tibetans who came from Tibet are in a rush to book cars in groups to go back to the border, paying somewhere between 55,000 to 60,000 Rupees (£658 - £718) for each car.

 

Tibetans leaving Bodh Gaya to return to Tibet

"Once in a lifetime"

When Tibet Watch approached the Central Tibetan Administration’s Department of Security, the minister there showed great concern about the threats but declined to make any comment or answer questions for security reasons.

It is not only Tibetans who face problems with religious freedom and freedom of movement. The Chinese government has also imposed strict measures on Buddhists from mainland China who are visiting India, suspicious that they are attending the Kalachakra. There have been far fewer Chinese devotees in Bodh Gaya this year than in at past Kalachakras.

A Chinese woman from mainland China, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Tibet Watch: “A few of my friends had their visas and were planning to attend the Kalachakra teachings, but could not come due to government restrictions.” She added, “I won’t be at the Kalachakra grounds during the teachings, instead I will use the radio and listen to the Kalachakra teachings from my hotel.”  

Despite this pressure from China, a small number of Tibetans have defied the threats and severe penalties that they might have to face when they return, and have chosen to stay in Bodh Gaya.

“Many are returning to Tibet unable to receive the Kalachakra initiation by His Holiness due to intimidation by the Chinese authorities”, said one devotee on condition of anonymity. “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me; therefore, if I return without receiving the initiation I will forever regret it. If this costs me imprisonment after my return as a punishment, I’m ready to face it with contentment”.

Gyaltsen Norbu, China's Panchen Lama, who conducted the Kalachakra ceremony in Tibet last summer

Power games

The Chinese government regularly denounces the Dalai Lama, who has been in exile since fleeing Tibet in 1959, and has been barred from returning. Pictures of him are illegal inside Tibet, and Tibetans have gone to prison for transgressions such as holding birthday celebrations for him.

Beijing has also attempted to undermine his legitimacy among Tibetans by cultivating its own religious leaders. In July last year, Gyaltsen Norbu, a 26-year-old Tibetan who was raised in Beijing and handpicked by the Communist Party to be the Panchen Lama (the second highest authority in Tibetan Buddhism), conducted the Kalachakra ceremony in Shigatse, central Tibet. The ceremony was the largest stage that China had yet given their Panchen Lama, and was conducted in front of four giant LED screens to a crowd of 50,000 Buddhists from Tibet, China and neighbouring countries.

Gyaltsen Norbu is widely rejected among Tibetans, who instead continue to call for information about Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who the Dalai Lama identified as the real Panchen Lama in 1995 and who was subsequently abducted. He remains missing 21 years later.

Take action

Free Tibet’s ‘Beyond Belief’ campaign supports Tibetans' struggle against China’s interference in their religious affairs. Sign the petition to call on political and religious leaders to tell China that they will do the same and will never recognise any Dalai Lama it appoints.