Eyewitnesses: more than one thousand Tibetans protest in Qinghai after monk disappears in river

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Free Tibet has learned that, according to eyewitnesses, more than one thousand Tibetans protested outside a police station on Saturday in Lajong township, Machu county in north eastern Tibet (Chinese province: Qinghai). The protest was sparked after a monk at the local Raja monastery was seen jumping into a river and being swept away by the heavy current. According to eyewitnesses, the monk jumped into the river just moments after fleeing from a local police station where he had been taken the previous day (Friday) along with six other monks from Raja monastery. The monk, Tashi Sangpo, is in his late 20s.

Free Tibet has spoken at length to a monk in London who was a fellow student with Tashi Sangpo at Raja monastery in the 1990s. The monk inLondon, who cannot be named for security reasons, spoke to contacts in Machu county yesterday following the protest at the town’s police station.

The London-based monk was told that tension had been simmering in the town since March 9 when monks at Raja monastery had raised a Tibetan national flag above the monastery’s main prayer hall. (According to separate reports received by Free Tibet, several military trucks had arrived at the monastery on March 8. Armed troops had begun security patrols around the perimeter of the monastery the same day. Free Tibetwas told that, in addition to raising the Tibetan flag on March 9, monks at the monastery had also scattered leaflets around the monastery’s debating yard. The leaflets are reported to have expressed “solidarity and mourning for Tibetan martyrs”, a reference to Tibetans killed inChina’s crackdown on protesters in Spring 2008.)

The London-based monk told Free Tibet that, according to the reports he had received, police officers had arrived at the monastery on 10 March and had forcibly removed the flag after monks had refused to do so. According to his sources, the police had returned to Raja monastery on Friday 20 March and had detained seven monks, including Tashi Sangpo, on suspicion of raising the Tibetan flag. The sources stated that the monks were held overnight at the police station.

According to eyewitnesses, at around 2pm local time the following day (Saturday 21 March) Tashi Sangpo was seen running from the police station towards the Machu river (referred to by Chinese as the Yellow river). Eyewitnesses told the sources that Sangpo had managed to escape from the police station after making an excuse that he needed to visit the toilet (toilets are commonly located outside buildings in Tibet). Eyewitnesses told the sources that they had seen Sangpo jumping in to the river from the river banks after running from the police station. The eyewitnesses, who were located on a bridge spanning the river, told the sources that they had seen Sangpo’s body being swept under the bridge by the river’s strong current and had lost sight of his body shortly after. Free Tibet has not been able to confirm whether Sangpo stated that he was intending to commit suicide or whether he was attempting to escape from the authorities by jumping into the river. No subsequent reports have been received by Free Tibet indicating whether Sangpo is alive or dead.

The London-based monk told Free Tibet that he had spoken to contacts who had gathered outside the police station shortly after Sangpo had been seen jumping into the river and being swept away. The sources said that the younger brother of Sangpo had arrived outside the police station at around 4pm local time and that a very large crowd quickly gathered. Sources put the eventual number of protesters, a mixture of monks and laypeople, at more than one thousand. According to the sources, the number of protesters was far higher than that of security personnel who remained inside the police station during the protest. The sources said that the protesters were very angry and believed that Sangpo had been forced to jump into the river as the only way of escaping the beatings and ill-treatment they felt he was likely to have received earlier at the police station. Many of the protesters believed he had committed suicide although it has been impossible to verify whether this was Sangpo’s actual intention when he jumped into the river.

Rocks were thrown at the police station according to the sources and one local security official is reported to have been badly injured. The sources stated that the crowd dispersed only after one of the senior lamas at Raja monastery requested people to leave the scene.

The London-based monk spoke to contacts who were at the protest after they had returned home later that evening. The monk has been unable to receive further information today as his contacts have been reluctant to speak over the phone today. Free Tibet is unable therefore to verify reports today from official state media that around 100 Tibetans have been arrested following the protest.

Director of Free Tibet, Stephanie Brigden, said:

“Given the huge numbers who protested yesterday, there are potentially very serious consequences for the Tibetans involved. With Tibet under lockdown and sealed off from the eyes of the world, China will be able to act with complete impunity against the protesters in Machu county. Free Tibet is hugely concerned for the future safety of all Tibetans in the area following this latest protest.”