Biru Villagers Respond With Protests to Chinese Flags, Security, Detentions

November 20, 2013

According to news media and advocacy group reports, beginning in late September 2013, security operations involving substantial numbers of People’s Armed Police (PAP) arriving in Biru (Driru) county, Naqu (Nagchu) prefecture, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) reportedly resulted in PAP beating, detaining, and firing on unarmed Tibetans protesters. The sequence of events began with the arrival of government officials and staff in rural areas of Biru and with demands that villagers show patriotism toward China by displaying China’s national flag above their homes. Biru was the residence of four of the TAR’s eight reported self-immolators.

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Context: Biru’s Role in TAR Self-Immolation

Biru county, located in the east-central TAR, has had a relatively low profile in international news media reports on Tibetan protests over the past years, based on Commission staff monitoring of news media reports. The scale of security responses to recent events in Biru, however, likely reflects Chinese government and Communist Party sensitivity toward political protests in the county. Biru’s role in the series of Tibetan self-immolations focusing on political and religious issues provides significant context for the series of detentions and protests summarized below.

Biru was the residence of four of the TAR’s total of eight self-immolators. All four Biru self-immolations took place within a period of approximately one month preceding the November 2012 opening of the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The last of the four Biru self-immolations was on November 7, the day before the Party Congress opened (Xinhua, 14 November 12). (See self-immolation numbers 52, 58, 59, and 67 on a Commission summary of Tibetan self-immolations as of September 28, 2013.)

The level of official sensitivity to self-immolations taking place within the TAR may be apparent in March 2, 2013, remarks by Pema Choling (Baima Qilin), Chairman of the Standing Committee of the TAR People’s Congress and Deputy Secretary of the TAR Communist Party Committee. He failed to acknowledge that six of the eight reported TAR self-immolations, including all four Biru self-immolations, had happened. According to state-run media, Pema Choling said that “no local residents, monks or nuns in Tibet Autonomous Region have self-immolated so far” (Xinhua, 3 March 13).

By referring only to “local” residents, Pema Choling’s statement appears to tacitly acknowledge the May 27, 2012, self-immolation of two Tibetans in the Barkor area of central Lhasa. Both self-immolators worked in a local restaurant but hailed from other provinces (International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), visited 29 September 13; see Commission self-immolation summary, numbers 36–37).

Chronology: Biru County Crackdown, September 3–November 3, 2013

The following information summarizes reports of police and People’s Armed Police activity in Biru county from early September to early November 2013. The information is likely incomplete because authorities disabled communication systems, according to reports. See, e.g., Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), 8 October 13 (“blocked communications by phone and the Internet”); Radio Free Asia (RFA), 17 October 13 (“complete blackout of communications;” “too difficult to send information out electronically”); and TCHRD, 19 October 13 (“all communication channels remain blocked”). Some of the detentions detailed below resulted in part because Tibetans reportedly attempted to share information about the crackdown.

  •  September 3: Security officials beat, detain elderly villager. After the arrival of a “political propaganda team and dance troupe” in a Biru township referred to as Tsachu, 68-year-old Dayang staged a political protest calling for Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama’s long life. Police reportedly beat him severely then hospitalized him. (RFA, 11 September 13.)
  •  September 24: Biru court sentences Dayang. The Biru County People’s Court reportedly sentenced Dayang, to two years and six months in prison. Reports did not identify the criminal charge against him or his place of imprisonment. (RFA, 8 October 13.)
  • September 27: Officials “force” Tibetans to raise Chinese flags. Preceding China’s National Day on October 1, “thousands” of government officials and workers reportedly arrived in Naqu prefecture and set out to “force” all residents—monastic and lay—”to raise the Chinese national flag” above their homes. (RFA, 2 October 13.)
  •  September 28: Tibetans dispose of flags; confrontation, detention ensue. Tibetans in one Biru village reportedly threw Chinese flags into a river rather than fly them above their homes. PAP came to the scene and may have fired at villagers (possibly with anti-riot rounds), leading to “open confrontation” in which Tibetans used “sticks and stones.” The allegation of shooting was unverified; the report did not include information on the type of weapon allegedly fired. (TCHRD, 5 October 13.)
  •  September 29: Security officials beat protesters, detain and hospitalize one. When residents of another Biru village appealed to authorities to refrain from using forceful measures against protesters, public security officials reportedly beat and detained approximately 40 of them. Police beat Tsering Gyaltsen, “the main splittist” some officers reportedly shouted, so severely that officials transferred him to a Lhasa hospital on October 5. (Tibet Express, 7 October 13; TCHRD, 8 October 13.)
  •  October 3: Police detain another protest leader. Police reportedly detained Dorje Dragtsal, a resident of Datang (Dathang) township in Biru, in another Biru location or in neighboring Naqu county, where he reportedly fled after participating in the earlier Biru protests against compulsory display of the Chinese flag. In addition, he reportedly had been “especially vocal” in expressing disapproval of Party-run political education campaigns in Biru. (RFA, 7 October 13; TCHRD, 8 October 13.)
  •  October 6: PAP open fire, dozens reported wounded. When public security officials arrived at Dorje Dragtsal’s residence to search it, villagers gathered to “confront” the police who conducted the operation and to demand Dorje Dragtsal’s release. PAP reportedly used tear gas, iron batons, and opened fire on the Tibetans, injuring “at least” 60. (RFA, 7 October 13; Tibet Express, 7 October 13; TCHRD, 8 October 13.) PAP may have been using anti-riot rounds in addition to other equipment based on a close-range image of PAP in another Biru location later in October with what appears to be anti-riot firearms slung across their backs (TCHRD, 21 October 13).
  •  October 8: PAP open fire in Biru, 4 reported killed. RFA reported that PAP opened fire on Tibetans as “[PAP] flooded into [Biru county] to suppress unrest.” The weapons fire allegedly killed four Tibetans (none identified) and wounded about 50 (none identified). The Commission has not observed news media reports providing independent corroboration of the incident. (RFA, 11 October 13; ICT, 15 October 13.)
  •  October 8: Police in Lhasa implement measures to track some Naqu Tibetans. Public security officials in central Lhasa implemented measures to track Tibetans from Biru and two Naqu counties bordering Biru, Suo (Sog) and Bachen (Drachen), as they moved about the city center. The notice describing the measures instructed police manning check posts, officially designated as “convenience police stations” (bian minjing wu zhan), to use coded language to alert police in adjoining zones that a Biru, Suo, or Bachen resident had entered their area. (TCHRD, 11 October 13; the article includes a translation of the notice.)
  • October 11: Police detain a writer and a social media user. Public security officials reportedly detained writer Tsultrim Gyaltsen from his residence in Xiangchu (Shamchu) township, Biru, and confiscated his mobile phone, computer, documents, and books. Police reportedly accused him of “separatist activities” and “[disrupting] social stability by spreading rumors” in Biru. Local middle-school students reportedly staged a hunger strike to protest the detention. (TCHRD, 14 October 13; ICT, 15 October 13.) The same day, police in Naqu county detained Biru resident Kalsang, a mother of three young children, reportedly for using social media to express “anti-China” views and having “patriotic” content including songs and the Dalai Lama’s image on her mobile phone. A TCHRD report noted that accounts differ on the “exact details” of accusations against her. (Phayul, 17 October 13; TCHRD, 19 October 13.)
  •  October 12: Police detain a former policeman. The day after detaining Tsultrim Gyaltsen, police detained one of his friends and former schoolmates, Yugyal, also a resident of Xiangchu township, and reportedly accused him of “separatist activity” and harming “social stability” by “spreading rumors.” From 2005 until 2012 Yugyal worked as a policeman for the Biru County Public Security Bureau. He reportedly was “frustrated by the political nature” of police work and resigned to start a private business (TCHRD, 14 October 13).
  • October 15: Police detain a villager and a nun for sharing information. Police in Xiangchu reportedly detained Dawa Lhundrub and Jampa, a nun, for allegedly “revealing state secrets through mobile phones and other means” (TCHRD, 19 October 13). The accusation suggests that officials suspected them of sharing “state secrets or intelligence” (e.g., about the Biru crackdown) with individuals or organizations outside China (see PRC Criminal Law, Art. 111).
  •  October 17: Police in Lhasa detain two Biru monks. Police in Lhasa city detained monks Jampa Legshe and Kalnam (likely a contraction of Kalsang Namgyal) of Shugding Monastery, located in Xiangchu, on suspicion of “leaking state secrets.” The monks arrived in Lhasa a month prior to detention (TCHRD, 19 October 13).
  •  October 18: Police detain Tibetan father, triggering protest. Police detained and “disappeared” Xiaqu (Shagchu) township resident Tenzin Rangdrol after he walked with his children to a village school. The report did not provide information on the basis for the detention but implied that locals regarded it as politically motivated (TCHRD, 21 October 13).
  • October 19: More than 100 Tibetans gather, protest Tenzin Rangdrol’s detention. Approximately 40 Tibetans reportedly gathered after dark on October 19 outside the Xiaqu township government office to protest Tenzin Rangdrol’s detention. Overnight, their number increased by about 100 (TCHRD), or “hundreds” according to a second report (Phayul). (TCHRD, 21 October 13; Phayul, 21 October 13.)
  • October 20: Among Tenzin Rangdrol protesters, police detain 10. On the morning of October 20, PAP clad in anti-riot gear reportedly surrounded the protesters outside the Xiaqu government office. Police detained 10 of them, including Shodar, Dorgyal, Lhamo, Kalsang Namdrol, and Mengyal. An official allegedly told protesters they were like “eggs hitting a rock,” and warned them that the government could put Tibetans in a situation like “1959 and 1969”—an apparent reference to the severe consequences Tibetans experienced following the Dalai Lama’s escape to India during the Lhasa Uprising in March 1959 and during China’s Cultural Revolution (TCHRD, 21 October 13). According to a different source, officials later released the detainees (Phayul, 21 October 13).
  • November 3: Police detain 15 Tibetans after “political education” session. Officials arriving in Xiangqu on November 3 ordered villagers to attend “political education” the same day. Officials ignored attendees who pressed officials to release detainees Tsultrim Gyaltsen and Yugyal. That evening, three women, Sarkyi, Tsophan, and Yangkyi, went to officials’ residences and continued to question the legal basis of detaining the men and demand their release. Officials summoned police, who detained the women. Around the same time, police detained 12 men, including Kundrag, Thubchen, and Tsering Tenpa, who gathered near an official office and were discussing the political education session. (TCHRD, 8 November 13; RFA, 8 November 13.)

Background: The Post-March 2008 Protest Period, Post-January 2007 Regulatory Period

The Commission’s Political Prisoner Database—which is far from a complete representation of political and religious imprisonment in China—contains 55 records (see following list) of Tibetan political detainees or prisoners who resided in Biru, including those named above. Of the 55 Biru records, 52 are of persons detained during the period after March 10, 2008, when political protests swept across the Tibetan plateau. Two more records are of Biru residents detained in November 2007.

The Commission’s 2010 and 2011 Annual Reports contained information on Biru environmental, political, and religious protests:

  •  2011 Annual Report. Tibetans in Biru reportedly attempted to block Chinese workers who arrived in August 2010 to begin construction of a dam near a mountain Tibetans regard as sacred. Villagers claimed workers intended to establish mines in the area, asserted that they had the right to protect the local environment, and refused to move. On September 26, the construction team claimed to have received a mining permit agreed to by the TAR Party secretary. Security officials reportedly detained protest leaders Dorje Dragtsal (the same person named in the October 3 entry above), Palden Choedrag, and three other Tibetans who presented a petition to Naqu authorities. (RFA, 30 September 10, 7 October 10.)
  •  2010 Annual Report. On March 22, 2010, Tibetan primary school students briefly staged a protest in Biru. During the protest, students reportedly called for Tibetan freedom, the Dalai Lama’s long life, and his return to Tibet. (ICT, 22 March 10; Phayul, 24 March 10.)

Fifty-four of the PPD’s fifty-five Biru records (see following list) coincide with the period beginning in 2007 when the Chinese government and Party expanded the use of regulatory measures to deepen control over Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, nunneries, monks, and nuns. Such measures took effect first in the TAR, in January 2007 (CECC translation), and were described in the Commission’s 2007 Annual Report. In September 2007, national measures took effect that asserted comprehensive central government control over one of the religion’s most unique and important features―lineages of teachers that Tibetan Buddhists believe are reincarnations and that can span centuries. The Dalai Lama denounced the regulations as “outrageous and disgraceful” in a signed September 2011 “declaration.” Based on Commission analysis, the imposition of these and other regulatory measures on Tibetan Buddhist affairs that took effect beginning in 2009 in Tibetan autonomous prefectures in other provinces appear to correlate with the wave of Tibetan self-immolations that began in 2009.

For additional information, see the Tibet sections in the Commission’s 2013 and 2012 Annual Reports.