China Arrests, Beats, Starves Hundreds of Tibetan Protesters

A Tibetan community member shouts slogans while demonstrating a protest against China&#039
Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Chinese security forces are cracking down hard on Tibetans protesting against a massive hydroelectric dam project that will destroy several villages and Buddhist monasteries.

Police have reportedly arrested over a thousand demonstrators, some of them beaten brutally enough by the police to need medical attention.

The peaceful protests began on February 14 after China announced plans to build a huge dam across Tibet’s Drichu River, which is part of the Yangtze River network. The Gangtuo Power Plant would be the latest in a string of hydropower projects built across the so-called Tibetan Autonomous Region and Sichuan, the neighboring province into which Communist China folded some of the Tibetan territory it annexed in the 1950s.

China’s dam projects have a habit of flooding areas containing historic Tibetan sites and populated villages. The Guangtuo project would wipe out six Buddhist monasteries and two villages, displacing thousands of people. 

As one of the prospectively displaced villagers explained to China watchdog group Bitter Winter last week: “Relocation here does not mean that you are transferred to another nice village ready to welcome you.”

“We are told that we will have apartments but they are not ready,” the villager said. “Meanwhile, we are parked in camps that are kept under strict surveillance to prevent protest and are very similar to reeducation camps – although we have committed no crime.”

Other villagers and Tibetan activists accused China of using its billion-dollar dam projects to accelerate the destruction of Tibetan culture.

“Of course it is about making money, and big money at that, but I am sure there is more. Tibetans compelled to relocate are separated from their history, from homes where their families may have lived for decades or even centuries, from all their visible cultural and religious points of reference,” one of the protesting locals told Bitter Winter.

Hundreds of Tibetans, including Buddhist monks, began rallying to protest against the dam project. On February 14, a remarkably large crowd assembled outside the Dege County Government Building in the city of Derge, a major center of Tibetan culture and history. They refused to leave when Chinese police tried to disperse the protest, leading to scuffles and arrests.

Arrests, and brutal treatment, steadily escalated over the past two weeks. The UK Telegraph reported on Saturday that over a thousand Tibetans were rounded up by Chinese security forces in a single day on Friday after a hundred were taken into custody on Thursday.

Police hit the protesters with water cannon, tasers, and pepper spray. The police administered beatings captured on video, with the victims including robed Buddhist monks.

When Tibetans living in other parts of the country flocked to Derge to press for the release of imprisoned relatives, they too were arrested. Chinese officials instructed the detainees to prepare for a long stay in prison camps, advising them to bring their own food and bedrolls.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) on Monday quoted a source who said the Tibetan detainees were “slapped and beaten severely each time they refused to answer important questions.”

“Many had to be taken to the hospital. One of the monks from Wonto Monastery was among those who had to be immediately rushed to the hospital because he had been beaten so badly that he could not even speak. He also had many severe bruises on his body,” added the source, who spoke anonymously out of fear for his or her safety.

Another source told RFA the detainees were being held without food, and some have “passed out because of the lack of food amid the freezing temperatures.”

Police units from other regions have been brought in to crush dissent in Derge, putting several of the communities in lockdowns that reminded eyewitnesses of China’s harsh coronavirus quarantines.

Videos of the unusually large and determined protests, and the brutal Chinese crackdown, became viral sensations – so China’s massive censorship apparatus swung into action. Residents of Derge reported that cell phones were confiscated, videos of the protests were scrubbed from China’s tightly controlled social media networks, and search terms related to the protests were blocked.

“The protests in Derge are unprecedented, and could be the largest demonstrations since mass rallies rocked China in late 2022 when people peacefully took to the streets to rally against three years of tight Covid restrictions,” the Telegraph observed.

Tibetan activists said the ugly crackdown vindicated their criticisms of the Chinese Communist regime.

“The events in Derge are an example of Beijing’s destructive policies in Tibet. The Chinese regime tramples on the rights of Tibetans and ruthlessly and irretrievably destroys valuable Tibetan cultural assets,” said International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) managing director Kai Muller.

“Beijing’s development and infrastructure projects are not only a threat to Tibetans, but also to regional security, especially when it comes to water supplies to affected Asian countries,” Muller added. Other Southeast Asian nations long ago learned that living downstream of China puts them at the mercy of Beijing’s heavy-handed water and power policies.

“These arrests should be a reminder to the world of how brutal daily live under China’s occupation is for the Tibetan people,” said ICT President Tencho Gyatso on Monday.

“China tries to hide its forced relocation of Tibetans, its destruction of their environment, and its attempts to wipe out their culture and religion,” Tencho said. “The Tibetans in Derge have shown incredible courage by protesting peacefully. They need the international community’s support.”

“Criminalised for defending their homes and environment, Tibetans inside Tibet are risking their lives by sharing videos on social media exposing the reality of Tibet under occupation of the Chinese government,” said Students for a Free Tibet campaign director Chemi Lhamo.

On Sunday, Under Secretary of State Uzra Zeya, who serves as the U.S. government’s special coordinator for Tibetan issues, said she was “deeply concerned” by China’s mass arrests of Tibetans.

Zeya was especially worried about China’s plans to destroy a half-dozen historic monasteries.

“These centuries-old monasteries are home to hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and contain irreplaceable cultural relics,” she said. “The United States stands with Tibetans in preserving their unique cultural, religious, and linguistic identity.”

“China must respect human rights and freedom of expression, and include Tibetans in the development and implementation of water and land management policies,” she said.

The Canadian Foreign Ministry also expressed “grave concern” about the “human rights situation affecting Tibetans, including restrictions on freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief, and the protection of linguistic and cultural rights.”

“We urge Chinese authorities to immediately release all those detained for exercising their rights to freedom of speech and of assembly,” said Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Genevieve Tremblay.


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