Tibetan town sees security crackdown

Gillian Wong, Associated Press:China’s stifling lockdown of this Tibetan town has not only been about patrolling its sleepy streets, but also policing the minds of a community at the center of self-immolation protests against Chinese rule.

Soldiers with helmets, rifles, sticks and shields march in rows along this monastery town’s main road against a backdrop of snow-speckled mountains, while police stare at passing cars, scanning license plates and faces of passengers for unwelcome visitors. In school dormitory rooms in the county, there are random checks for books that go against the ruling Communist Party establishment – and the constant questions about political leanings.

“They’ll ask you questions and if you answer with your true feelings, they will be very unhappy. If you keep quiet, they will also be unhappy,” said a Tibetan who teaches at a school in Aba county and who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisals.

“They want you to say that the party is good and their policies are good,” he added.

Teachers also are banned from making any mention – positive or negative – of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, the teacher said during an interview in the neighboring county of Hongyuan.
An Associated Press reporter managed to get through several checkpoints along the road leading to Aba, for a rare glimpse of a town that has been under lockdown for more than three years. There is increased security this week ahead of sensitive anniversaries, including a deadly antigovernment riot in 2008 and the Dalai Lama’s 1959 flight from the region.

The Aba township government referred questions about the heavy police presence to Aba prefecture, where government and Communist Party offices denied that security was high.

The town sits among high-altitude valleys grazed by yaks on the Tibetan plateau in southwestern Sichuan province. The town’s Kirti Monastery, a large compound with an enormous white stupa, occupies a position in Tibetan society like that of a major university.

Its monks have been at the forefront of unrest since the 2008 rebellion was quashed. Many of the nearly two dozen Tibetans who set themselves on fire in the past year were monks or former monks from Kirti.

During this week’s trip, the county surrounding Aba was cordoned off with roadblocks, usually manned by paramilitary police in green uniforms. On the way into town, a large signboard declared in Chinese, with no translation in the local Tibetan language: “A peaceful Aba is built by all, a peaceful Aba is shared by all.”

Barricades and a police minivan were perched at the junction to the narrow lane leading to the monastery. The first thing visible down the lane was a large white-and-blue police station, a Chinese flag atop it.

Internet and cell phone text messaging services in the area have been cut. Only telephone calls are allowed, and many believe that most calls are tapped. While the Chinese government has sought to win over the region by boosting economic growth, Tibetans worry about the gradual erosion of their culture and religion amid an influx of majority Han Chinese.

“In the people’s hearts, what they probably can’t stand the most is that the authorities scold our living Buddha, the Dalai Lama. We cannot stand it when they scold him,” the teacher said. “He’s the person we are most loyal to.”

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