Government Policy on Tibetan Reincarnation Leads to Expulsions, Detentions, Suicide

October 18, 2010

A series of events from May to July 2010 at Shag Rongpo, a little-known monastery located in Naqu (Nagchu) county, Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), has resulted in the expulsion and apparent house arrest of the 75-year-old abbot, the detention of other monks, the sentencing of one monk to imprisonment, the expulsion and apparent sentencing of 17 monks to "public surveillance," and the suicide of a 70-year-old monk, according to reports from Tibetan organizations based in India. The events began when Chinese officials reportedly accused the abbot, who also served as the monastery's senior Buddhism teacher, of contacting the Dalai Lama about the search for the reincarnation of a Shag Ronpgo trulku―a teacher whom Tibetan Buddhists believe is one of a lineage of reincarnated teachers that can span centuries. After the May detentions, officials and People's Armed Police arrived at the monastery to conduct "patriotic education" and pressure monks to denounce the Dalai Lama and the monastery's senior teacher.

The Chinese government issued the Measures on the Management of the Reincarnation of Living Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism (MMR, translated by International Campaign for Tibet),effective on September 1, 2007, asserting unprecedented government control over the process of searching for, identifying, seating, and educating all Tibetan Buddhist trulkus in China. This is the first incident since the measures took effect in which the Commission has observed reports of the consequences at a monastery where a senior figure attempted to reach out to a prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher living in exile―such as the Dalai Lama―on a matter relating to the succession of a trulku. [For more information on the freedom of religion for Tibetan Buddhists in China, see the Commission's Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009.]

Events at Shag Rongpo Monastery

Based on Phayul (23 July 10, 27 July 10) and Tibetan government-in-exile (TGiE) (27 July 10) reports, the following events took place from May to July.

May 17: Five detentions. Security officials detained Abbot Dawa Khyenrab Wangchug (or Dawa), titled with the honorific "Rinpoche" and apparently regarded as a trulku, Shag Rongpo monks Ngawang Jangchub, Ngawang Thogme, and Dungphug, and layman Tashi Dondrub while the five men were in Lhasa city, the TAR capital. Authorities accused Dawa of attempting to contact the Dalai Lama about the search for a Shag Rongpo reincarnation known as Rongpo Choeje. The reports did not state the purpose of the men's visit to Lhasa or provide information about how the alleged attempted contact with the Dalai Lama took place. Article 2 of the MMR states that Tibetan Buddhist reincarnations "shall not be interfered with" by any "foreign organization or individual." The Chinese government labels the Dalai Lama a "splittist" and seeks to end his influence among Tibetans as a paramount religious leader. [For more information on the anti-Dalai Lama campaign, see the Commission's Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009.] Officials dealt with the five detainees in the following manner.

  • Abbot Dawa: Apparent house arrest. Stripped of all of his monastic positions, authorities forced Dawa to leave the monastery and reportedly held him "incommunicado" at his residence in an unspecified location in Naqu. Authorities banned Dawa from any contact with Shag Rongpo Monastery, and monks from any contact with Dawa.
  • Monk Ngawang Thogme: Two years' imprisonment. The monastic temple-keeper detained with Dawa was reportedly sentenced for keeping photos of the Dalai Lama in his room. The reports did not provide information about the criminal charge against Ngawang Thogme, the court that sentenced him, or his place of imprisonment.
  • Two monks and one layman: Released. Police released from detention after an unspecified period of time monks Ngawang Jangchub and Dungphug, and layman Tashi Dondrub.

After Dawa's detention: Intensive "patriotic education."According to the reports, approximately 50 members of "patriotic education" work teams accompanied by approximately 150 People's Armed Police arrived at Shag Rongpo. The work teams pressured monks to sign or fingerprint denunciations of the Dalai Lama and Dawa, and reportedly threatened monks with expulsion or imprisonment if they failed to comply. Phayul reported that one monk suffered a "severe breakdown" and the monastic disciplinarian became so depressed that authorities "forced" the two monks to leave the monastery.

July 17: Monks expelled, ordered to serve "public surveillance." According to the July 23 Phayul and July 27 TGiE reports, a group of 17 monks led by senior monk Ngawang Lobsang had requested "repeatedly" that officials cease the patriotic education sessions, and presented to patriotic education instructors reasons why the monks should not denounce the Dalai Lama and Dawa, and why the monastery should maintain contact with Dawa. Unspecified authorities expelled the 17 monks from the monastery and, according to the TGiE report, ordered them "to report once a week at the local government office and not to leave the place for two years." Ngawang Lobsang, named in the TGiE report, is the only monk identified so far. Based on the description of the punishment, public security officials apparently ordered the monks to serve "public surveillance" (see Criminal Law, Arts. 38-41). The provisions empower police to impose up to two years of public surveillance without judicial process (Art. 38). A person ordered to serve public surveillance must fulfill conditions that include the following requirements (Art. 39).

  • Obey laws and regulations and submit to "supervision" by government and public security offices;
  • Forfeit rights provided under Article 35 of China's Constitution, including the freedoms of speech, press, association, and assembly unless public security officials authorize the exercise of a right;
  • Report on one's activities as directed by public security officials;
  • Comply with "regulations for receiving visitors" that public security officials stipulate;
  • Remain within one's county-level area of residence unless public security officials grant permission to leave it.

July 20: An elderly monk allegedly commits suicide. According to the reports, 70-year-old Ngawang Gyatso committed suicide on July 20 as a result of "depression" linked to religious repression and pressure to denounce the Dalai Lama. Officials allegedly confiscated Ngawang Gyatso's suicide note and ordered Shag Rongpo monks not to discuss his death as a suicide and to support the government description of his death as "natural."

July 21: "Patriotic education" results in another detention. During a "patriotic education" session that included demands to denounce the Dalai Lama, monk Khyenrab Norbu declared that life in the monastery would be "worthless" if officials maintained the ban on contact between the monastery and senior teacher Dawa, according to the TGiE report. He reportedly threw away the keys to the monastery and said that the authorities should keep them instead. Officials detained him after he left the meeting.

The Panchen Lama Precedent: An Abbot Imprisoned For Contacting the Dalai Lama About Reincarnation

The Chinese government's dismissal as "illegal and invalid" the Dalai Lama's May 1995 recognition of Gedun Choekyi Nyima as the 11th Panchen Lama, and the December 1995 installation of another boy, Gyaltsen Norbu, as the Panchen Lama, is an internationally recognized example of government and Communist Party intrusion into Tibetan Buddhist affairs. The government had authorized Chadrel Jampa Trinle, titled Rinpoche and the abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the Panchen Lama's seat, to lead the committee searching for the reincarnation of the 10th Panchen Lama. During the search he allegedly sent the Dalai Lama a letter listing the boys identified as possible candidates (Tibet Information Network, reprinted in World Tibet Network, 23 August 01). Chinese authorities detained Chadrel Rinpoche on May 17, 1995, and nearly two years later, in April 1997, sentenced him to six years' imprisonment for counterrevolution and disclosing state secrets to "separatist forces abroad" (Xinhua, reprinted in World Tibet Network, 7 May 97.) Chinese authorities have provided no information about Chadrel Rinpoche's location or well-being following his January 2002 release from prison. The U.S. Department of State's 2009 International Religious Freedom Report noted that he "reportedly remained under house arrest."

In addition, Chinese authorities imprisoned Jampa Chung, Chadrel Rinpoche's monastic assistant, and detained or imprisoned 34 other Tashi Lhunpo monks linked to protests against Chadrel Rinpoche's detention, based on information available in the Commission's Political Prisoner Database. The period of detention or imprisonment for the 35 monks ranged from two months to Jampa Chung's four-year sentence. The Commission has not observed any confirmation of Jampa Chung's release or recent report on his location and status.

See the Commission's 2010 Annual Report, 2009 Annual Report, and Special Topic Paper: Tibet 2008-2009 for more information on the freedom of religion for Tibetan Buddhists and on the political imprisonment of Tibetans. See the Commission's Political Prisoner Database for more information on cases of political prisoners named in this report.