After Monk's Suicide: Coerced Removal and "Education" for Monks; Possible Murder Charges

August 17, 2011

Tibetan Buddhist monks at Kirti Monastery whom officials suspect of assisting or sheltering a monk who committed self-immolation on March 16, 2011, could face criminal charges, possibly for "premeditated murder." China's state-run media characterized the suicide as a "plot" to "incite other monks to create disturbances," but did not acknowledge monastic resentment against increasing government and Party control over Tibetan Buddhist affairs. On April 21, security officials allegedly beat to death two elderly Tibetans and injured others who tried and failed to block People's Armed Police from removing at least 300 Kirti monks from the monastery. Official media reported the next day that the local government would begin immediately "mass legal education" of Kirti monks to maintain what officials described as "normal religious order." The use of enforced confinement (de facto detention) and coerced participation in a program under the pretext of "education" appears to disregard Article 37 of China's Constitution which prohibits "[u]nlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens' freedom of the person by detention or other means." On June 9, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson dismissed a United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances request for information on the monks and asserted that "there was no question of forced disappearances." Kirti Monastery is located near the seat of Aba (Ngaba) county, Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province.

Chronological Summary of Principal Developments

  • March 16: Self-immolation. Monk Phuntsog of Kirti Monastery, age 20 or 21 according to international media and advocacy group reports, reportedly set himself on fire at about 4 p.m. on March 16, 2011, near an Aba market area to protest the fatal shooting on the same date in 2008 of at least 10 Tibetans during a protest [and some rioting], according to same-day reports by Radio Free Asia (RFA, 16 March 11), International Campaign for Tibet (ICT, 16 March 11), and Phayul (16 March 11). China's official media cited an Aba county government spokesman who provided the monk's name as Rigzin Phuntsog, his age as 16, and noted that he had "a history of epilepsy" and had become a Kirti monk in 2005 (Xinhua, 17 March 11, reprinted in China Internet Information Center). Xinhua did not explain whether officials deemed the alleged "history of epilepsy" to be relevant to the self-immolation. Phuntsog reportedly shouted slogans calling for the Dalai Lama's long life as he burned, and security officials allegedly kicked and beat him as they extinguished the flames (ICT, 17 March 11; RFA 16 March 11, Phayul 16 March 11). Tibetans "intervened and managed to take Phuntsog away from the police" and returned him to the monastery (ICT, 17 March 11). Later that night, monks took Phuntsog to the county hospital after the government gave them "permission" to do so, according to an RFA source (RFA, 17 March 11). China's official media acknowledged "hours of negotiation," but asserted that the government waited for permission from the monks to move Phuntsog (Xinhua, 23 April 11, reprinted in China Daily). He died at about 3 a.m. on Thursday, March 17, according to media and advocacy group reports (RFA, 17 March 11; ICT, 17 March 11), or "early Thursday morning," according to official media (Xinhua, 17 March 11, reprinted in China Daily). Chinese media cited a hospital official who stated that a post-mortem examination of Phuntsog turned up no evidence of wounds consistent with a police attack on him (Xinhua, 23 April 11, reprinted in China Daily). After seeking and receiving official permission, on March 18 Kirti management conducted a funeral service and cremation for Phuntsog (ICT, 18 March 11).
    • Questions posed by the Xinhua report of age 16. If, according to the March 17 Xinhua report (reprinted in China Internet Information Center), "Rigzin Phuntsog" was 16 years old in 2011, then he would have been age 10 when he became a Kirti monk in 2005. If, however, the Xinhua report was mistaken and Rigzin Phuntsog was age 16 in 2005, when he joined Kirti, then he would turn 22 during 2011—an age similar to international media and advocacy group reports. According to Article 27 of the Management Measures for Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, which took effect on November 1, 2010 (available in Chinese on the Central People's Government Web site), students in scripture study classes must "generally" be over age 18. It is unclear what type of activity "Rigzin Phuntsog" may have engaged in at Kirti if he was age 16 in 2011, or if his status as a minor would have any effect on the prosecution of other Kirti monks who could face "intentional homicide" charges linked to his self-immolation, as reported below.
  • March 19-21: More PAP arrive; education on "patriotic religion" starts. On March 19, the day after Phuntsog's cremation, People's Armed Police (PAP) and public security officials began to converge on Kirti in substantial numbers, halted normal monastic activity, and placed the monastery under tight security (RFA, 22 March 11; Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), 11 April 11). Security personnel reportedly did not permit monks to leave the monastery’s premises without written permission from monastic and government officials, or to move about the monastery, and allegedly beat monks who did not remain in their rooms. On March 21, provincial-, prefectural-, and county-level Party and government officials launched a political education program in Kirti called "patriotic religion" (RFA 22 March 11).
  • April 9: Hundreds more PAP; work starts on barbed wire, walls, to seal off monastery. On April 9, approximately 800 additional PAP arrived at Kirti and tightened security further, sealing off traffic access to the monastery and prohibiting most pedestrian entry and exit (RFA, 12 April 11; TCHRD, 11 April 11). PAP manning monastery entrances refused to allow Tibetans to bring in food for the monks (a Buddhist custom toward monks and nuns), reportedly resulting in a food shortage. Authorities directed the installation of barbed wire to seal off portions of the monastery's perimeter that were not already closed, then workers completed construction of a concrete "boundary wall" to prevent entry or exit except at three gates manned by security officials and PAP (Phayul, 19 April 11; ICT, 11 April 11, updated 12 April 11; TCHRD, 11 April 11).
  • April 12: Decision to send monks aged 18-40 away for "education." On April 12, authorities reportedly announced that monks between the ages of 18 and 40 would be taken from the monastery to other locations to undergo "patriotic education" (ICT, 11 April 11, updated 12 April 11; ICT, 13 April 11; RFA, 14 April 11). Local Tibetans who were aware of the government's intentions rushed to block access to the monastery by "around 40" buses carrying PAP (RFA, 14 April 11; TCHRD, 13 April 11; ICT, 9 May 11). PAP allegedly beat some of the Tibetans and allowed police dogs to attack them, resulting in injuries, but the Tibetans maintained their position and the confrontation ended a few hours later without the PAP buses entering the monastery (RFA, 14 April 11; ICT, 13 April 11; ICT, 11 April 11).
  • April 21-22: PAP remove 300 monks for "mass legal education." Around 9 p.m. on April 21, PAP and public security officials went from room to room at Kirti and forced at least 300 monks onto buses or trucks that took them to locations that may have been in Wenchuan (Lunggu), Mao (Maowun), and Li (Tashiling) counties in Aba prefecture, and Dujiangyan city in Chengdu municipality (RFA, 22 April 11; ICT, 22 April 11; Phayul, 22 April 11). PAP and police allegedly beat some Tibetans in a group of about 200 who attempted to block removal of the monks from the monastery, resulting in the deaths of 2 elderly Tibetans, serious injuries to some, and brief detention of most of the others. The Aba county police chief later claimed there had been no clash, no injuries, and no deaths (Xinhua, 30 April 11, reprinted in China Internet Information Center). On April 22, the Aba County People's Government issued a notice stating that "mass legal education" of Kirti monks would begin immediately in order to maintain "normal religious order" (Xinhua, 22 April 11, 10:04 GMT, translated in OSC; Xinhua, 22 April 11, 13:39 GMT, translated in OSC). The notice included the allegation that some of the Kirti monks "for a long time" had "disturbed the social order," "[damaged] the normal religious order," and "[tarnished] the image of Tibetan Buddhism" by fighting, gambling, drinking, circulating pornography, and using prostitutes (Xinhua, 22 April 11, 10:04 GMT; Xinhua, 23 April 11, reprinted in China Daily). "Legal education" would compel monks to "study the country's laws and regulations as well as religious disciplines and [precepts]" (Xinhua, 23 April 11). The use of enforced confinement (de facto detention) and coerced participation in a program under the pretext of "education" appear to disregard Article 37 of China's Constitution, which prohibits "[u]nlawful deprivation or restriction of citizens' freedom of the person by detention or other means."
  • April 22: "Legal experts" say monks linked to self-immolation suspected of "intentional homicide." Concurrent with the start of "legal education," China's state-run media reported that "local legal experts" described two Kirti monks, referred to in Chinese as Zhongzhou and Da'erji and who allegedly delayed Phuntsog's handover to the hospital, as suspects in a case of "intentional homicide" (guyi sharen) (Xinhua, 22 April 11, translated in OSC, 24 April 11), or "premeditated murder" (Xinhua, 23 April 11, reprinted in China Daily). The April 22 Xinhua report linked two additional monks, referred to as Ladan and Zerang Zhade, to the self-immolation. The April 23 Xinhua report described security officials' assessment of the self immolation as "a carefully planned and implemented criminal case, which aimed at triggering disturbances." China's Criminal Law, Article 232, provides a minimum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment and a maximum punishment of execution for "intentional homicide," and a sentence of 3 to 10 years "if circumstances are relatively minor." Article 233 provides three to seven years in prison for "negligently causing death," but not more than three years "if the circumstances are relatively minor."
  • June 8-9: MFA dismisses UN concerns over 300 monks’ "disappearance." The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) issued a press release (8 June 11, available on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Web site) expressing "serious concern" about all persons subjected to enforced disappearance in China, including the 300 monks security personnel allegedly removed from Kirti on April 21. The press release urged the Chinese government to provide information about their "fate and whereabouts" and called on China to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. On June 9, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) spokesperson responding at a scheduled news conference to a question about the Working Group press release asserted that no "forced disappearances" took place at Kirti," according to a BBC report (BBC, 9 June 11). "The relevant local authorities are conducting legal education for the Kirti monastery monks in order to maintain religious order there," the MFA spokesperson said. Based on the BBC report, the spokesperson apparently did not provide any information on the location of the monks, the duration of the "legal education" program, or whether officials kept the monks confined to the program site. The transcript of the press conference (available in Chinese and English on the MFA Web site) did not contain the question about the Kirti monks or the spokesperson's response.
  • May-June: Some "disappeared" monks from Qinghai sent home. An unknown but substantial number of monks hailing from Qinghai province who were among the 300 monks removed from Kirti and subjected to "legal education" have been returned to their family homes in Qinghai, according to international media and advocacy group reports issued in late May (ICT, 26 May 11) and June (RFA, 16 June 11). Authorities prohibited monks from Yushu (Yulshul) and Guoluo (Golog) TAPs in Qinghai from returning to Kirti, took them back to their Qinghai homes, and released them, according to sources cited in the RFA report. Information on their post-release status and activity is not available. A spreadsheet linked to a TCHRD report (10 June 11) listing 161 of the monks reportedly among those forcibly removed from Kirti contains a total of 139 entries of monks with residences in Yushu or Guoluo TAPs. Only 4 of the 161 entries record a residence in Sichuan province. Commission analysis has not confirmed whether or not every entry on the list represents a unique case.
    See a previous CECC analysis titled "Tibetan Buddhist Affairs Regulations Taking Effect in Tibetan Autonomous Prefectures" for more information on regulatory measures in effect in Aba T&QAP and other TAPs. See sections on religious freedom for Tibetan Buddhists in the Commission's 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2006 Annual Reports.