Tibet's religious life still bruised by Lhasa riots

LHASA, China Thu Feb 12, 2009 11:07pm EST

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LHASA, China (Reuters) - Buddhist monasteries have reopened to the devout in Tibet's regional capital, but nearly a year after monks' protests sparked deadly riots, officials keep a tight grip on traditional hotbeds of discontent.

At the historic Drepung monastery, on Lhasa's outskirts, three or four monks were removed for their role in the violence.

Security forces moved out of the monastery when visitors were allowed back in around four months after the unrest. But there are army barracks, police cars and a checkpoint on the road up to what was once just a center of Buddhist study.

Inside, monks take patriotic education classes on Chinese law, alongside their Buddhist scripture studies, and were kept closeted away from visiting foreign journalists on a rare and tightly controlled government visit on Thursday.

At the ancient Jokhang, the only other Lhasa monastery the reporting group was allowed to visit, there were the same classes on law. Rank and file monks were absent -- perhaps because a few last year burst into a similar media tour to shout protests.

On March 14 last year, Lhasa erupted into riots that spilled over into ethnically Tibetan areas across the Himalayan plateau. A Tibetan crowd burned shops belonging to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, killing 19 people.

Religion is at the heart of both Tibetan life and the Chinese government's political problems in the restive region, 50 years after Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile in India following an abortive uprising against Chinese rule.

Controls on religion and resentment over the condemnation of the Dalai Lama have made monasteries a breeding ground for anti-China sentiment. Discontent broke into protests in 1989 and again last year.

Beijing's tough response to last year's unrest sparked disruptions of the international leg of the Beijing Olympic torch relay.

The region went into a security lock-down, with monasteries first in line for strict controls.

"During the time of the riot we had some security staff come to calm down the monastery," Ngawang Choetsen, deputy director of Drepung Monastery's management committee, told reporters.

"The monastery reopened to the public in June or July and since then there have been no security forces stationed here."

Three or four young monks who were key players in the unrest had left to be "handled in accordance with the law," he added before turning down requests to meet ordinary monks.

Hundreds of Drepung monks joined the peaceful protests that preceded the violence and all monks living in the sprawling complex now have sporadic lessons in Chinese law.

"Monks are also citizens of China, and every country has its laws and constitution," Choetsen said.

PILGRIMS' PROGRESS

Pilgrims have been spared the patriotic education and the holiest places in Lhasa see a steady flow of the devout, many farmers and nomads who look as though they have stepped out of a centuries-old engraving of traditional Tibetan life and dress.

Champa Kesang, a manager at the Potala Palace, sacred former home of the Dalai Lamas, looked on happily this week as pilgrims filed past, feeding yak butter into flickering lamps.

With the Tibetan New Year coming, there are even more visitors than a year ago, he says, although tourists are still thin on the ground.

But the surge in devotees may be due in part to the obstacles posed by a security crackdown, which meant almost 100,000 fewer Tibetans made their way to the palace to pray last year.

"This is the first time since the March events that it has been convenient to come," said a female pilgrim, gathering her family in one of the palace's many courtyards.

"Normally we would come two or three times a year," she added, declining to be named because of political risks.

For those outside Lhasa, strict checks on visitors and expulsion of many without papers -- designed to root out potential troublemakers -- made long journeys difficult and even believers in the city stayed away.

"It was a real problem for a month or so after the riots, with extra police and checks, but now it's fine," said one Lhasa businessman who tries to visit the Potala once a month.

But Tibet has a tough month ahead, reflected in the armed police that residents say lined its streets to ensure calm until the foreign journalists arrived this week.

On March 14 comes the one-year marker of the riots and four days before that the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile -- a date which triggered the original protests.

"Our military police have to totally focus on protecting social stability, the rule of law, and the interests of wider society," the No. 2 Communist Party official in Tibet, Lekchok, told Reuters when asked about the security presence.

"But we can't relax too much after the events of last March."

(Editing by Nick Macfie and Dean Yates)

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