Tibet Crisis: On Scene in Tongren

For the Tibetans in Tongren, it was a sacred day of incense burning. But against a backdrop of protest and violence, the big question was whether the monks of the Longwu Monastery could come out to lead the ritual. Tuesday's occasion, depending on which Tibetans you asked, was either the start of spring or the anniversary of the Supreme Buddha Sakyamuni becoming a monk—or mourning for brethren killed elsewhere during recent clashes with Chinese security forces. To Chinese authorities it presented yet another dangerous window for Tibetans to protest against Chinese rule and clamor for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama.

Armed police were on the alert in this area even before Beijing's crackdown on the latest spate of protests against its 57-year rule of Tibet left an unknown number of people dead. (China claims that rioters killed 16 civilians in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital; exiled Tibetan leaders estimate that about 100 people have died.) For several weeks in this county seat in Qinghai province, northeast of Tibet, authorities had forbidden the monks to exit their lamasery in groups of more than two, let alone from performing rituals at their hillside altar. On Sunday, though, the monks had ascended the mount before the police could fall in to stop them. They whispered that they might try it again. On Monday night one of the monks called a NEWSWEEK journalist to say the ritual was on. "Seven o'clock tomorrow morning. We're going up."

But when dawn broke on Tuesday, the lamas were not moving. Security forces were. Riot police and army trucks walled off all surrounding roads; police blocked the path up the hill, and inside the temple, agents stood guard outside monks' courtyard living quarters. As the monks grew increasingly agitated over the blockade, the abbot of Longwu pleaded for calm. By afternoon three young monks began turning their rage upon themselves: two chipped at their own scalps and bodies with stones; another slit himself with a knife. "That one [who knifed himself] was my student," said a senior monk contacted by phone later that day. The other two checked out of a Tongren hospital on Wednesday, but his charge was still recovering. Asked to explain the self-flagellations, the monk said, "People living in this world need freedom. Without freedom, what is the point of living?"

The desperate act of devotion was an ominous sign. Similar restrictions on remembrance rituals played a significant role in provoking monks to march in Lhasa on March 10, the sensitive anniversary of the 1959 revolt against Chinese rule. Those protests began peacefully but spiraled into Tibet's most violent since the Lhasa uprising in March 1989. Beijing's tough response—coming just as the country prepares for this year's Olympic Games—has prompted international criticism and calls from human rights groups for the United Nations to address the issue. Communist Party mandarins have branded the turmoil a plot hatched by the Dalai Lama to sabotage the August games. As the week progressed Beijing appeared to intensify its crackdown, announcing arrests and, according to widespread accounts, deploying more soldiers to Tibet. "We are engaged in a fierce battle of blood and fire with the Dalai clique," said Tibet's Communist leader Zhang Qingli on Wednesday, a day after Premier Wen Jiabao dismissed the Dalai Lama's support for peaceful negotiations as lies. In an interview with NEWSWEEK Thursday, the Dalai Lama said he was "fully committed to amity between Tibetans and Chinese." Earlier in the week he said that he would resign as leader of Tibet's government in exile "if things become out of control."

The chain of unrest, however, has led many observers to question whether anyone's in control. As potent as the Dalai Lama's hold is over devotees on the other side of the Himalayas, mountains have separated them for five decades. Tibetans' pro-independence outbursts contrast sharply with their spiritual leader's stated willingness to negotiate for greater autonomy under the aegis of Beijing.

The confrontations in Tongren—a town that developed around the 700-year-old lamasery and is known as Repkong in Tibetan—underscore just how combustible pent-up passions remain. In October, after the Dalai Lama was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, army troops had to be called in to break up dancing and fireworks celebrations in front of the monastery.

Hostilities have also simmered between the Tibetans, who make up over more than 70 percent of the county's population, and minority Hui Muslims. Late last year Tibetan and Muslim families outside the town got entangled in a land dispute over a Muslim burial mound. Last month a skirmish broke out between a Hui vendor and a Tibetan over the price of balloons. That spat ended in a night of rioting that pitted partly Tibetan police squads against Tibetan residents and monks. As many as 200 people were arrested, leading to demonstrations for their release the next day.

Police and paramilitary forces in Tongren have been beefing up their presence ever since. For the last two weeks schools in town have been in session without a break to prevent Tibetan students joining the fray. Authorities have mounted extra surveillance cameras to electricity poles to keep lookout over the monastery. Government officials make more frequent visits to the prayer halls, where tourists often see large portraits of the Dalai Lama hanging front and center. An acolyte in the main prayer hall says of the Dalai picture, "We take it down when officials come and put it back up when they leave."

On Sunday, one Tibetan witness says, some monks hurled stones before heading back into the monastery; riot police countered with tear gas. After security forces stopped the monks from leading Tuesday's incense offering, the rest of the Tibetan community continued neighborhood rituals of their own. On the incense pyres fathers burned branches of highland barley, spooned rice and wheat flour on top, then drizzled on Chinese moonshine. Young men strung up colorful streamers imprinted with sutra verses. They scattered paper money like tickertape, lit firecrackers, blew conch shells and howled out to the sky. When a police van on patrol drove by, they howled even harder—then quieted down when two plainclothes minders from the district government turned up.

The leading monks known as living Buddhas (tulku, in Tibetan) have tried to negotiate with the authorities to relax the ghetto-style controls on their movements. After the three young monks administered their self-inflicted wounds, though, elders sounded shaken and worried about the future. "I guess," said one living Buddha, "the trouble will continue." With hundreds more paramilitary trucks seen on the road to Lhasa, though, Beijing doubtless hopes that "trouble" will be quashed—at least for the time being.