Protesting monks storm media tour in western China

XIAHE, China (Reuters) - Fifteen Tibetan Buddhist monks interrupted a state-sponsored media tour of a restive region of western China on Wednesday, demanding the return of the Dalai Lama and yelling that they had no human rights.

In the second such incident in as many months, the monks, carrying a banned Tibetan flag, burst out of a building at the Labrang monastery in the town of Xiahe, in the northwestern province of Gansu, and rushed across a plaza to a group of 20 visiting Chinese and foreign journalists.

“The Dalai Lama has to come back to Tibet. We are not asking for Tibetan independence, we are just asking for human rights. We have no human rights now,” one monk told the reporters in Chinese.

Many of the monks had covered their heads in robes. One monk, with his robe over his head, kept pushing his right hand over his left fist and saying “China - Tibet”, implying that China was suffocating Tibet.

They said eight monks were still being held by authorities, but did not specify if they were from Labrang or elsewhere, and that plainclothes agents of China’s paramilitary armed police force were stationed throughout Xiahe.

Some of the monks threw prayer shawls over the shoulders of photographers.

Officials leading the tour did not appear to try to intervene during the incident, but a number of older monks persuaded the protesters to disperse after about 10 minutes.

Hundreds of monks from the Labrang monastery led a march through Xiahe in mid-March, after riots erupted in the Tibetan regional capital Lhasa on March 14.

Xiahe is one of the biggest centers of the Dalai Lama’s Gelukpa branch of Buddhism.

China poured troops into the region to restore order in the wake of the protests. Xiahe was still under heavy armed guard earlier this month, a Reuters eyewitness reported.

On Wednesday, the main street of Xiahe showed a few buildings with broken windows but little other obvious damage.

The incident is the second disruption by protesting Buddhist monks during a stage-managed tour organized for reporters.

In late March, Chinese authorities were embarrassed after about 30 monks stormed a briefing by a temple administrator for a select group of foreign journalists at the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, shouting that the reporters were being lied to.

Monastery officials played down Wednesday’s protest.

“What you journalists just saw was a very small minority of people who disrupt our harmonious and peaceful life and religious activities, said Gongqihujinba, vice-director of the Labrang monastery’s management committee.

“We will take care of them under national law. What they did was not consistent with national security laws, or rules on religion,” said Gongqihujinba, who is also a member of an advisory body to Gansu’s provincial parliament.

Guomangcang, dean of religious affairs at a provincial Buddhism academy attached to Labrang, suggested that the monks may have been put up to the protest.

“Maybe the young ones were not acting of their own accord, maybe someone influenced them,” Guomangcang said. China has said Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his associates are behind the unrest. The Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in India in 1959 after an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, has denied the accusation.

Reporting by Lucy Hornby; Writing by Ian Ransom; Editing by David Fogarty