Chinese authorities in Sichuan province have arrested three Tibetan Buddhists they claim were in possession of “politically sensitive information” as they returned from a pilgrimage, Tibetan sources in exile say.
Asang, Dodra, and Nortso were interrogated by police on Jan. 10 while traveling home from the sprawling Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Academy in Sichuan’s Serta (in Chinese, Seda) county and later arrested, a source told RFA’s Tibetan Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Their cellphones were examined by police in Draggo (Luhuo) county in the Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and all three of them were arrested for ‘possessing politically sensitive information and pictures,’” the source said.
“They were handed over to police in Chamdo [prefecture] and are currently held at the Chamdo Police Station.”
A second Tibetan in exile, who also declined to be named, told RFA that the content on their phones was related to the destruction late last month of a three-story statue of Maitreya Buddha at Gaden Namyal Ling monastery in Drago.
“They were interrogated by the police in Drago when they were arrested,” the source said.
“The police looked into all the group chat apps on their cellphones and charged them for keeping videos and pictures of the recent destruction of the Buddhist statue in Drago and also using those images as their screensaver wallpaper.”
The confirmation of the removal of the statue of Maitreya, believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be a Buddha appearing in a future age, follows RFA’s verification earlier this month of the destruction of a 99-foot tall statue 900 meters (2,700 feet) away.
Chinese authorities forced monks from local monasteries and Tibetans living in nearby towns to witness the demolition of the statue and 45 traditional prayer wheels, which began on Dec. 12 and continued for the next nine days, Tibetan sources in exile said, citing contacts in the area.
The three-story statue and the structure housing it were both torn down around the same time as the 99-foot Buddha, which authorities said was too tall, a Tibetan living in exile told RFA, citing contacts in Drago.
Drago county chief Wang Dongsheng had been present at the statue’s destruction and witnessed the brutal police beating of local Tibetans objecting to the demolition, sources said. Wang had earlier overseen a campaign of destruction of the Larung Gar Buddhist Academy in a move that saw thousands of monks and nuns expelled and homes destroyed.
Other Drago arrests
Authorities in China maintain a tight lockdown on the flow of information in and out of the country’s Tibetan regions, and it can often take weeks to learn of arrests and other incidents through the exile community.
A third source in exile recently told RFA that authorities had also detained a Buddhist nun named Lobsang Tsomo and “a few other Tibetans” in Drago county on Sept. 18 last year “for having communicated with Tibetans in exile.”
“They were beaten and tortured while they were in prison and released after more than three months,” the source said.
“Despite their release, Lobsang Tsomo and the others who were released from prison are barred from leaving their county and remain under scrutiny by authorities,” they added.
The destruction of the statues in Drago county and other religious sites signal a growing pattern of Chinese control over traditional Tibetan religious practice and increasing attempts by Beijing to recast Tibetan Buddhism as a Chinese faith, experts and observers say.
Formerly an independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force 70 years ago.
Tibetans living in Tibet and in Tibetan areas of western Chinese provinces frequently complain of political, economic, and religious discrimination as well as human rights abuses and say they fear Beijing is pursuing ever more aggressive policies aimed at eradicating their national and cultural identity.
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