Sharon Hom, Executive Director, Human Rights in China (HRIC): On behalf of Human Rights in China, I would like to welcome His Eminence Kyabje Kirti Rinpoche, the chief abbot and spiritual leader of the Kirti Monasteries in Tibet and India, and also welcome the members of the press in China, Hong Kong, and New York who are joining us today. The self-immolations of Tibetans since March 2011 are a horrific reflection of the human rights situation in Tibet, which is part of and related to the overall human rights situation in China, and the violence, and harassment, and detention, and enforce disappearances suffered by Han Chinese, including rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and petitioners. Two prominent examples are the beating and house arrest of Chen Guangcheng and his family, and the ongoing disappearing of Gao Zhisheng. The censorship of information by the Chinese authorities makes it difficult to get the accurate information about the situation on the ground. We hope that this meeting with Rinpoche will be helpful to you in understanding and reporting on the Tibetan story.
Kirti Rinpoche [speaking in Tibetan through an English interpreter]: I would like to introduce myself first. My name is Kirti Tulku, I am the 11th reincarnation of Kirti Rinpoche, and am deeply connected and intimately tied to the people in Tibet for many years.
And I would like to speak mostly about the urgent situation that is unfolding in Tibet, particularly in the area in Tibet.
The reason that this urgent and dramatic situation is unfolding in Ngaba is the wound that has spanned three generations of Tibetans in that area.
The wound of the first generation goes back to 1935. The wound of the second generation of Tibetan goes back to the period of 1958 to 1966, during the time of the Cultural Revolution and the so called democratic reform. And the wound of the third generation, the wound that is tearing open Tibet’s heart at this moment, began at 1998, when China started the Patriotic Re-education Campaign.
The reason why this situation is taking place in Tibet, and particularly in Ngaba, is the drastic nature of the repression that the Chinese government has been waging all over Tibet and in particular in Ngaba, and because of the fact that since March this year, the monastery has been split into divisions and that the Patriotic Re-education Campaign imposed on the monks almost round-the-clock random searches in the monks’ quarters. These are the reasons that have been driving the repression to a point where the Tibetans find it unbearable.
At this point, I would like to take questions.
Question [all questions, unless otherwise specified, are read by Sharon Hom]: The first question is from The Wall Street Journal: “What was the trigger or catalyst of these self-immolations?”
Answer [all answers, unless otherwise specified, are given by Kirti Rinpoche, speaking in Tibetan, and then interpreted into English]: The main reason is something that is already reflected in a statement made by Mao Zedong himself: “Wherever there is repression, there will be resistance.” And because there is Chinese government’s repression in Tibet, this form of resistance, through self-immolations, is taking place in Tibet right now.
Since 2008, the degree of repression in Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery has advanced to a point where Tibetans have really reached their breaking point.
Q: We have a set of questions from the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal. First, the question from the Financial Times: “How have security measures in Tibetan areas—troop deployments, curfews—changed in the context of the series of recent self-immolations? How many and which new repressive measures have occurred in this context? And why is this spreading?” Second, the question from The Wall Street Journal: “Is the apparent upsurge in unrest centered only around Kirti, or has it spread to other monasteries? And, if so, which ones?”
A: In general, this repression is taking place all over Tibet. And the level of repression is similar to a situation where all of Tibet is actually under virtual martial law.
And in fact, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the autonomous prefectures, instead of enjoying a greater autonomy, what the Tibetans are going through is: they are suffering greater oppression than the Chinese people who are living in China proper.
And the Tibetan people have no right to environmental protection; they are not given the right to religious freedom, and they have no freedom of movement. These are the examples of the oppression that the Tibetans have been living under.
While these kinds of general repressive policies are taking place all over Tibet, the area of Ngaba started experiencing an even more acute kind of repression since 2008.
Since March , the Patriotic Re-education Campaign has been imposed on the monks round-the-clock: random searches taking place in the monastery; the whole monastery being equipped with close-circuit TV cameras, listening devices, and watch towers; and hundreds of monks being rounded up and detained in unspecified locations, and many of them being subjected to torture. These are some of the examples of the acute repression taking place in Ngaba.
In 2008, we witnessed a very strong crackdown in Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery. And now this year again, starting from March, we saw the same kind of crackdown riveted the monastery again. And the monks have been divided into 55 different groups in order to accelerate their re-education campaign. Eight hundred Chinese government officials have moved into the monastic compound, and this has been driving the monks to a state of utter fear and desperation.
In name it is being called “re-education,” but in reality it is nothing but a state of imprisonment for the monks.
On a regular basis, the monks are being asked if they have changed their opinion, if they have changed their stand. And so long they haven’t changed their opinion, they are threatened that the monastery will be destroyed.
And because the monks at the monastery have been pushed to this great desperation, they are finding that they have no other option except to express themselves, to express their opposition to Chinese rule through resorting to the most powerful method of non-violent resistance. And, in setting themselves on fire, the Tibetans have refrained from harming a single Chinese, and they are appealing non-violently to the Chinese government.
Although the Chinese government has been cracking down on Kirti Monastery, as if that was the only place where this kind of desperate action is taking place, in reality, this form of resistance has spread to other parts of Tibet including the Tawu and Kardze regions.
And the people who are engaging in self-immolation, engaging in this kind of resistance—they are not only limited to a certain gender or social group. These people represent diverse sections of Tibetan society including the monastic community, the lay community, men, and women.
And through these actions, they are trying to express the ultimate desire of Tibetan people and the ultimate suffering that the Tibetan people are going through at this point.
And by removing the troops, stopping the re-education sessions, and changing its heartland policies, the Chinese government can put an end to the self-immolations overnight.
And the Chinese government’s repression in Tibet is the cause of these self-immolations. And, so long the cause doesn’t change, so long as the cause is there, the result will continue to unfold.
And at this point, through its repressive policies, the Chinese government has been changing the Tibetan issue into an ethnic conflict in Tibet.
One of the main causes is also the fact that the Chinese legal system is completely unfair and completely unjust.
For example, the uncles of Phuntsog1 who were involved in trying to save Phuntsog’s life when he committed the act of self-immolation—these people were in fact charged with killing Phuntsog. So the victims are being charged as perpetrators. And that is a fundamental source of injustice.
And much of the legal system has been bought by corruption and money.
Q: Question from The Toronto Star: “Of the eleven monks and nuns who have set themselves alight, six have said to have died; what do we know about the other five?” And I’m going to add that the next question: “At this stage, what do we know about the 300 monks who were taken away earlier this year from Kirti Monastery?”
A: Among those who have engaged in self-immolation, we know for a fact that six of them have died. The remaining people, what we know about them is that the Chinese government has taken them, and after that there has been no information whatsoever about these individuals. So, at this point, the Chinese government has kept us and the world from learning whether these people are alive or dead, or having any piece of information about their whereabouts and existence.
And regarding the around 300 monks who have been forcibly taken away from the monastery, the information that we have is that some of them may have been released and allowed to go back, and some of them may have been able to sneak out and return. But at this point, about the great majority of those people, there is no confirmed or verifiable information of as to their whereabouts.
Q: Question from The Wall Street Journal: “What do people feel about the Dalai Lama’s and the Karmapa Lama’s statements on self-immolations if they are aware of them at all?”
A: Both His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa have said that the main cause of these self-immolations in Tibet is the Chinese government’s escalating repression, and, the moment the Chinese government withdraws its repression, we know that these desperate actions will stop.
The main vision of His Holiness the Dalai Lama is to resolve the Tibet issue and resolve this conflict through dialogue.
No amount of violent military rule has ever been able to solve or resolve any conflict, so we believe it’s utterly important for the Chinese leaders and officials to realize that the only way to solve this issue is through peace and non-violence and dialogue, and they should muster the courage and the vision to do so.
The Chinese officials, the authorities in Tibet, the methods that they are using in Tibet right now, these are the methods of the last century. And sometimes I wonder if the central government in Beijing even knows about what some of the local authorities are doing and the methods that they are using. We know that the Chinese government either they don’t know about how their authorities are behaving and how they are using some of the most repressive policies in Tibet. Or, if they do know that, then we urge the leadership in Beijing to allow the global community to come to Tibet and visit Tibet, to allow the world media to visit Tibet to see for ourselves what the reality of the situation is.
Therefore, the fact that the Chinese government does not allow any outsiders and media to go to Tibet really betrays the fact that they know that they are hiding something in Tibet.
If you have the truth, let the world see it.
Q: We have a question from the Leipziger Volkszeitung, a German newspaper: “The 800 government officials who have been stationed in the Kirti Monastery complex, are they still there? Where are they from? Which government departments? Are they from the Kirti region or other regions? And what exactly do they do there?”
A: At this point, we have learned that the 800 officials who have been stationed in Kirti Monastery have now been reduced to about 300-400 officials. Most of these officials have been sent from four different counties located in Sichuan Province.
Q: What are they doing there?
A: Right now, people are saying that all of the monastic authorities of the Kirti Monastery have been forcibly taken away or usurped by [the officials of the] Ngaba Prefecture. And what these officials do in the monastery is they monitor the activities of the monks in the monastery, and they are also in charge of carrying out the daily re-education sessions and classes in the monastery.
Q: We have two questions—from The Guardian, followed up by the South China Morning Post: “Can His Eminence talk about his own status? When did he leave? Will he go back? Has he ever spoken out like this? What are the implications for him? How long has he been the chief abbot? And where is he based now, India?”
A: In 1959, I fled Tibet into exile in India. In 1984 or 1985, I was able to return to Tibet briefly. And right now, I have been living in Dharamsala.
And I have had this deep desire and hope to return to Tibet, and in fact, I have approached the Chinese government for permission to allow me to go to Tibet quite often.
Given the opportunity and if there is the freedom that allows us to return, then any Tibetan would love to return to Tibet.
And I also have a very strong desire to learn even more about the reality of the situation on the ground inside Tibet.
Q: The other question from The Guardian is: “Has he ever spoken out like this, and are there implications for doing it now?”
A: The reason why I have been speaking out very strongly at this point is solely because the extreme situation inside Tibet has mostly been centered around Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery, which is very deeply connected to my own personal being.
And the reason why I’m speaking out very strongly now is also in order to publicize the truth about what is taking place, because the Chinese government has been hiding the truth from its own people—the Chinese people —and they have been waging a disinformation campaign by telling its own people that what is taking place in Tibet is not because the Tibetan people want freedom. And they have been making up their own stories about the Tibetan situation. And that’s why I have to tell the truth so that the people find out what the Chinese government is hiding.
For example, in Kirti Monastery there is a shrine, there is a room where the old, unused weapons are being stored because these weapons have been offered to the monastery by Tibetans in the past who took vows not to kill animals. And the Chinese government has been telling the media and its people that these weapons are being stored inside the monastery because the Kirti monks are planning to wage a war on the Chinese government.
And because these are the kinds of lies that the Chinese government has been telling its own people, I have taken it upon myself to take this opportunity to tell the truth.
And as far as I am concerned, the implication and the result of taking this stand and taking this action would be that the public would learn the truth.
A: We have questions from The Financial Times, The Guardian, NPR, South China Morning Post, Wall Street Journal, and the Leipziger Volkszeitung. These are a group of questions about understanding the structure. “When did the division of the monks into the 55 different groups start—in 2008, or this year after the immolations began? What is happening in those groups? And how many monks are there now in Kirti? And who is the most senior lama actually at Kirti? What is his status, and have the Chinese authorities installed someone loyal to them?”
Q: The division of monks into the 55 groups started this year in March. In 2008, the monks were divided into eight groups. And through these groups, the Chinese government has been waging its Patriotic Re-education Campaign. And the groups are a way of actually administering these re-education sessions.
And the only real purpose that is being served by the division of monks into the 55 groups is really that through each of these groups, the monks are being regularly interrogated and struggled to ask whether they have changed their opinion, and whether they have been forming new opinions about Tibetan politics and the Chinese government.
And there is a textbook for the Patriotic Re-education Campaign. And this textbook that is being distributed starts off in the most flowery and beautiful language. But once you read through the entire book, the summary of the book is that, in short, the monks should listen to anything and everything that is being told to them by the Chinese authorities.
Q: From NPR: “How does Rinpoche know all this?” And the last question from The Guardian: “Does he also advise the monks not to self-immolate even if there is no change in Chinese policy and behavior?”
A: Regarding the previous question about the number of monks remaining at Kirti Monastery, it is very difficult to ascertain the number of monks at this point because all of the information channels have been blocked.
There have been a few different underground sort of channels through which people pass on these pieces of information to us. And, most importantly, because the people on the ground see me as a trustworthy person, because they have faith and trust in me, they try to get all of these disparate pieces of information to me.
And as far as the situation of those people trying to send this information outside is concerned, for sending a small piece of information—whether it’s a documentation or numbers or images, any kind of data—people suffer very serious, severe punishment from the authorities for communicating this kind of information from Tibet to the outside world. And even if the Chinese authorities are not sure whether a certain Tibetan is communicating or giving this kind of information to the outside world, then they immediately put them in prison.
And there have been numerous cases of Tibetans who have been imprisoned because they were suspected of giving information related to these protests to the outside world.
And if the Chinese government does not alleviate its repression in Tibet, then the Tibetan people living there, they make their own choices of taking these actions. They have been driven to this kind of action because they have no other option. And because of that, and because it is not us who have told them to take these actions in the first place, I feel that we, in a way, we don’t have the moral authority or the right to actually tell them what to do and what not to do.
As a Buddhist teacher and practitioner myself, it is the least of my desire to see anyone suffering, let alone dying.
And each time someone gives up their life through these actions, it causes immense suffering to us because Tibetans are few in numbers; it’s a small population. And especially with these Tibetans who exhibit a lot of courage and love for their country, it is even more wrenching of a loss.
And we have a culture where we feel a great sense of loss and pain even at the death of an insect.
Q: From the Wall Street Journal: “A clarification, please, if there is a ‘rival head’ of the Kirti Monastery actually there?” And from the Leipziger Volkszeitung: “How many monks—that question wasn’t answered earlier— are now in Kirti now?” And then from the South China Morning Post, a question also posed earlier: “Can he describe the mood in the monastery and the state of the monks?”
A: In Kirti Monastery, in the four directions, right now there are four buildings being constructed in order to intensify the monitoring and watching of all the activities of the monks. All the monastic authorities have been taken away by the Ngaba Prefecture authorities … until next March. And the monks have been told that if they behave well, then these authorities will be restored to the monastery.
And as of now, I haven’t heard of any sort of “rival lamas” that the Chinese government has appointed in Kirti Monastery. However, it is clear that the Chinese authorities have been pressuring some of the lamas around Kirti Monastery in the hope that they can turn these lamas into some sort of rivals against us.
And they have also been concocting a lot of false news and information, waging this disinformation campaign in the monastery in order to turn people against us. And most of this disinformation campaign seems to be targeted at the domestic Chinese population.
At this point, every monk in Kriti Monastery has been living in a state of terror and there is a pervasive climate of fear across the entire region. And each of these people worries about when a great false charge is going to be brought on their head by China’s legal system.
So this is the state of terror in which they are living at this point.
Sharon Hom (HRIC): I think we have a question here. Could you identify yourself and your outlet?
Lan Qing (Radio Free Asia): Yes, I’m from Radio Free Asia—Lan Qing.
The question is: We know that Hu Jintao used to be stationed in Tibet, and he was the head. When he was there, he used military force to suppress the Tibetan people; he’s got blood on his hand. Now he’s the head of the state, and you know the Communist Party rulers, whoever has the iron fist, they will promote to the higher level, and now he’s been put in that position. What makes you feel that they still have this inclination to have a dialogue? We know that the Dalai Lama has been asking for a dialogue for a long time, but they [the Party leaders] they show no intention at all.
And it is said that he was tested—through his actions in Tibet—as someone who can be put into [the leadership] position.
A: It is embedded in the culture of the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party, that they always talk about what is not to be done, what cannot be done, what should not be done, what is not allowed for people to do.
And the use of violence, brutality in order to achieve their goals is one of the points on which all the leaders are always united in their opinion. And if anyone says something different from this kind of approach, the leadership immediately becomes very suspicious about such a person. From the highest officers to the lowest, this is the culture that pervades. And for anyone to say something that is different from this mentality, such a person would require extraordinary courage. And the current leaders in the Chinese government have no such courage and vision.
And when we talk about dialogue to resolve this issue, we are not necessarily referring only to Hu Jintao, nor are we referring only to the current incarnation of the Chinese government. When we talk about dialogue, we are referring to a very long time period and a long-term approach to resolving this crisis. Even if it may take generations in order to resolve this, we are committed to non-violent dialogue.
Q: The Guardian would like a clarification: “Is the total number of self-immolations 11?” And The Wall Street Journal wants Rinpoche’s age.
A: If we only count those who have committed self-immolation inside Tibet, then the confirmed number at this point—since March—is 11. There are some vague incidents of people doing self-immolations in far-flung rural areas, but there is no strong information and documentation in those cases. But 11 is the confirmed number inside Tibet.
And outside Tibet, among the exiled Tibetan population, one young Tibetan man who is a former member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, recently in Delhi, he attempted self-immolation outside the Chinese embassy. We also know that a Tibetan monk in Nepal also attempted self-immolation last week.
I was born in 1942, and right now 70 years old, according to the Tibetan calendar.
Q: Last question, from the South China Morning Post: “Could Rinpoche please confirm his rank and status in the Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy?”
Tendor (Interpreter): I’ll say this in the third person. So I’m speaking as Tendor right now. There are numerous branches of the Kirti Monastery, sort of like a franchise. Across Amdo, not only in the Ngaba area, and for all of these people who are connected to the various Kirti monasteries that number in the tens of thousands, Rinpoche is the supreme head of their particular order for many generations.
The Manchu government twice conferred the title of hotot— “the holy one” in Mongolian—to Rinpoche.
During the reign of the great Fifth Dalai Lama in Tibet, the Fifth Dalai Lama bestowed the title of “Rongpo Choije” to a previous incarnation of Rinpoche. And then, during the current reign of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, His Holiness has given Rinpoche the title of “Tulku Namsum,” something that might loosely translate as “the three manifestations” or “the three avatars” or something along those lines. But don’t cite me on the translation, I won’t stand by it.
And at this point, Rinpoche has the great status of an ordinary retired lama.
Sharon Hom (HRIC): Well, thank you to everyone, and thank you to the remote participants for your patience. This is our first attempt at HRIC to try a remote meeting with the press. We hope it will be smoother next time. But thank you all for staying up, and thank you all in New York for joining us. And as we said, we’ll send along some spellings and follow-up information to the whole group, so that everyone has it. Thanks to everybody, and thanks to Rinpoche, and thanks to Tendor for an excellent translation. Thank you.
1. Phuntsog, a 20-year-old monk from Ngaba, the first Tibetan commit self-immolation in 2011, set himself on fire on March 16, 2011, and died the following day. ^