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China releases Tibetan monks and residents held for dam protests

China flag. (Unsplash)
April 01, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Chinese authorities have released hundreds of monks and other Tibetans arrested in February for peacefully protesting the construction of a dam in a Tibetan-populated area of Sichuan province, but are still holding two accused of being ringleaders, two sources inside Tibet said. 

Tenzin Sangpo, senior administrator of Wonto Monastery, and a village official named Tenzin, were arrested on Feb. 23 on suspicion of leading protests last month against the Gangtuo Dam project in Dege county, or Derge in Tibetan, in the province’s Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture.

The dam is expected to submerge six monasteries, including Wonto, and force the resettlement of at least two major communities along the Drichu River, or Jinsha River in Chinese. 

All told, more than 1,000 Tibetan monks and residents of Dege county were arrested for protesting. Several of those arrested, including Sangpo and Tenzin, were transferred from where they were previously detained to the larger Dege County Detention Center.

Sangpo and Tenzin have been handed over to the government Procuratorate Office, responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious criminal cases, said the sources who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals by authorities.

Since then, authorities have provided no details about their whereabouts or the charges against them, the sources said. 

“The local Tibetan people are worried that the government will accuse them of having instigated the February protests and being responsible for sharing information with the outside world,” said the first source, referring to Sangpo and Tenzin.

Another monk, who has assumed the responsibility of monastery administrator in place of Sangpo, was also briefly detained by authorities, the sources said. 

Beaten and given little food or water

One monk who was arrested, detained and released said authorities kept those arrested in crowded cells meant to hold fewer than eight people.

They also fed the detainees poor quality tsampa – ground-up, roasted barley flour that is a Himalayan staple – fit for horses, mules or other animals.

“Some days, we were not given any water to drink,” he said. “On other days, when there was water, we were given very little.”

Authorities also slapped the monks and made them run around the prison grounds as punishment for their crimes or beat them if they refused to run, the monk said.

“One monk was beaten so badly that he could not even speak,” he said. “He is now under medical treatment.”  

Tibetans who had been arrested were pressured to incriminate each other, causing psychological trauma, said the sources.

Since the protests and arrests in February, authorities have been closely monitoring villages and monasteries on both sides of the Drichu River, and no outsiders have been allowed to enter the township, sources said. 

They have set up five checkpoints between Wonto village and Dege county, with dozens of police at each, they said. 

Villages residents and monks from Wonto Monastery are not free to travel unless they have a permit to visit the county, the sources added. 

Before the protests, there were more than 50 younger monks at Wonto Monastery, but they were sent to the county government school after the protests.

Future of dam project uncertain

Chinese officials and media reports have given mixed and contradictory information about the future of the dam project.

The Gangtuo Dam is part of a plan that China’s National Development and Reform Commission announced in 2012 to build a massive 13-tier hydropower complex on the Drichu. The total planned capacity of the 13 hydropower stations is 13,920 megawatts. 

Some have said that its future is uncertain, with preliminary checks being conducted to determine whether it is possible to complete it, sources said. Their findings will be presented to the State Council, the national cabinet of China, for a final decision.

But others made clear that the Gangtuo Dam project would continue, with a visiting county official telling the leaders of the project coordination team to adhere to their work orders and make arrangements for “the next step of work,” according to a local Chinese government announcement.