(TibetanReview.net, Feb 16) – The Chinese government revels in reciting statistics, especially when it comes to talking about economic growth and other accomplishments. But when it came to talking about the number of monks at Drepung Monastery in Lhasa, once the world’s largest with up to 10,000 resident monks, its officials faltered. “We have about 500 monks here,” MSNBC Online Feb 12 quoted Ngawang Cheetsen, deputy director of the management committee at Drepung Monastery, as saying. However, he then added, “But I am not sure about the exact figure.”
This was because only very few monks could be seen around. When asked about it, Ngawang made apologetic excuses, saying they were scattered around the premises, resting or eating lunch, the report said.
The Chinese government has set limits on the number of monks for the monasteries and nunneries in Tibet. For Drepung it is 500. However, following large scale arrests and expulsions in the aftermath of the protests there in Mar’08, their numbers dwindled, and no one know by how much.
The authorities shut down the monastery for months after at least 200 of its monks staged a protest rally to downtown Lhasa on Mar 10’08, the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan national uprising day. More arrests followed in subsequent protests and patriotic education incidents. It was reopened five months later, but remained under tight surveillance, rendering assessing the real situation there impossible.
Reuters Feb 13 noted that though the monastery was open, army barracks, police cars and a checkpoint lined the road to what was once just a centre of Buddhist study.
Ngawang, who acted as guide to a visiting group of 19 Chinese and foreign journalists selected by the Chinese government in Beijing, said none of Drepung’s monks had been involved in the Mar 14 protests. But when asked whether the number of monks at the monastery had declined since last year, he had replied yes.
Following a number of question thereafter, when the question about the involvement of Drepung monks in the Mar’08 protests was again raised, Ngawang slipped and said yes. He then sought to limit the damage by saying only three or four were involved. Asked what happened to them and whether they had been jailed, he replied in both the cases: “They just left the monastery.” When the question was again raised a little later, the reply was, “They have been dealt with according to the procedure of the law.”
About the Mar10’08 protest by the monks of Drepung, Ngawang’s reply was, “There were monks involved in the March 10 protest”. But he would not be bothered further as he said, “But I was not here so I cannot really comment on the details.”
The same story was repeated at Jokhang Temple. A senior monk reassured the journalists that all 117 monks at the Jokhang were present. But then, he refused to allow them to see any of the monks.
Pressed about the fate of a group of monks who last year cried and told a group of foreign journalists brought on a controlled tour that the authorities were lying about the situation in the city and what had happened in Mar’08, they were presented a 27-year-old named Norgyal. He claimed to have participated in that protest but added that he no longer felt the way he did last March. He said he was “misled by the wrong people” but did not elaborate what he meant, the report pointed out.
The Reuters report noted that at Jokhang, the only other Lhasa monastery the reporting group was allowed to visit, the rank and file monks were absent – perhaps because a few last year burst into a similar media tour to shout protests.