Beijing says venerable monastery complex is too crowded, sends in the bulldozers
The hills around the revered Tibetan Buddhist academy Larung Gar were once a seamless carpet of vibrant red, dominated by the homes of thousands of monks, nuns and devotees who crowded the remote valley in southwest China to explore their faith.
Today the landscape is riven with scars, with many houses destroyed and some neighbourhoods torn apart after demolition crews were sent in by authorities, who have ordered a mass clear out of the area.
More than 10,000 people – including many Han Chinese devotees – were living around Larung Gar, the world’s largest and most important institution for Tibetan Buddhist learning, but the government believes the area had become dangerously overcrowded.
Chinese tourists have partially demolished houses as the backdrop for photos at the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute in Sichuan. The government, citing overcrowding, wants to halve the population. Photo/AFP
Rights groups, however, see the demolitions as a ploy by the atheist ruling Communist Party to tighten its grip on religious practice in Tibetan regions.
Bulldozers began crushing homes last year, but the process has escalated in the past few months. The properties are being razed to make way for tourism infrastructure, parking and better roads leading down the steep hills to the central monastic buildings.
“They tore down so many houses – he government said there were too many people,” laments Tibetan Buddhist student Gyatso, 26, as he hands freshly sawed planks to a red-robed friend hammering them onto an extension to a house they now share metres from his old one.
Inside, a small tape player quietly chants mantras. Tibetan-language books line the walls next to framed photographs of Jigme Phuntsok, the charismatic lama who founded the academy in the 1980s.
“It’s freezing here in the winter, but I’m used to it and wouldn’t live anywhere else,” says Gyatso, who came to Larung Gar as a boy with his family of poor nomadic herders.
He received 5,000 yuan (Bt25,000) in compensation for his old home.
E’deng, who like Gyatso withholds his full name for security reasons, was not so lucky. Last autumn he was ordered out of Larung Gar, his home of two decades, and now rents a room near a monastery two hours away.
“Of course I didn’t want to move, but when the Khenpos decide something, you have to listen. There was nothing I could do,” he says, referring to revered Buddhist teachers who manage the encampment and have mediated the government request to reduce numbers.
Departing residents have to sign pledges promising never to return to live at Larung Gar, and some have been subject to intensive political re-education once home, according to Human Rights Watch.
HRW has condemned the evictions as a “fundamentally abusive campaign that has prompted suicides, public humiliation, and serious disruption to the community”.
The European Parliament called on China in December to stop the demolitions and respect freedom of religion.
Six United Nations rights experts expressed “grave concern” in a November letter to the government, recalling a previous demolition campaign in 2001, when 8,000 residents were driven out as homes were destroyed, sometimes with people inside.
Larung Gar has grown in unprecedented size and influence for a Buddhist academy on the Tibetan plateau. Authorities said last year its population, estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, would be cut to 5,000 by this September to improve fire safety and sanitation.
A blaze destroyed around 100 houses in 2014, without causing casualties, according to the International Campaign for Tibet.
“Of course fire safety isn’t the issue – all they want is to control things very easily,” says Lobsang, a monk now living in a neighbouring county who studied at Larung Gar for seven years.
“The government doesn’t like so many people – over 10,000 people – opening their minds because the school is so good. They think these people are very dangerous,” he adds.
An excavator clears debris from the partially demolished monastery complex. Photo/AFP
Some 4,500 nuns and monks had been expelled as of March, according to a senior abbot cited by campaign groups, and more than 3,000 homes are thought to have been destroyed as of this spring.
Authorities have made the area nearly inaccessible to foreigners with checkpoints and a heavy security presence, while temporarily limiting flows of Chinese tourists.
In a neighbouring valley, nuns have been placed in square rows of blue-roofed temporary housing.
But locals say demolitions cannot take away the strong pride in Tibetan identity, language and religion the academy has instilled.
Villagers in hamlets hours away carry cards and wear pendants distributed by Larung Gar, representing a vow to live by a moral programme of “10 virtues” espoused by its Khenpos.
For Lhamo, a Tibetan county government employee charged with convincing elderly devotees to leave Larung Gar for retirement homes, imposing the current order has been emotionally taxing.
People yell and curse at her, she says, but she understands their frustration.
“That little house is their everything. Even though some are very, very crude, they don’t have anything else in the world,” she says.
“When I tell them there are better living conditions elsewhere, they say they only care about studying Buddhism, not material things. What can you possibly say in return?”