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China releases dam-opposing Tibetan monks, residents

The hydropower dam in Sichuan would submerge six monasteries, and displace at least two major communities, protesters say
Tibetans and Buddhist leaders march in Ladakh, India, on Feb. 28, to show their solidarity with Tibetans in Dege county, southwestern China's Sichuan province, who were arrested for protesting China’s planned construction of a dam on the Drichu River.

Tibetans and Buddhist leaders march in Ladakh, India, on Feb. 28, to show their solidarity with Tibetans in Dege county, southwestern China's Sichuan province, who were arrested for protesting China’s planned construction of a dam on the Drichu River. (Photo: Thinley Choedon/RFA)

Published: March 26, 2024 11:17 AM GMT
Updated: March 26, 2024 11:23 AM GMT

Chinese authorities have released hundreds of Tibetan monks and residents who were arrested for protesting peacefully against the construction of a dam in a Tibetan-populated area of Sichuan province, says a report.

More than 1000 monks and residents in Dege county of Sichuan’s Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture were arrested following the protests in February, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

However, several others including a monk and a village official remained in detention as the authorities accused them of being “ringleaders” of the protests.

Protesters said they fear the dam would submerge six monasteries, including Wonto Monastery, and force the resettlement of at least two major communities along the Drichu River.

Tenzin Sangpo, senior administrator of Wonto Monastery, and a village official named only as Tenzin are accused of leading the protests last month, RFA reported citing sources in Tibet.

They have been reportedly transferred from a smaller detention center to the larger Dege County Detention Center.

Sources said Sangpo and Tenzin have been handed over to the government Procuratorate Office, responsible for investigating and prosecuting serious criminal cases.

The authorities have provided no details about their whereabouts or the charges against them.

“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 an unnamed source.

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

Badly treated

The authorities kept the arrested people in crowded cells that could barely hold eight people, a monk who has been released said on condition of anonymity.

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, he claimed.

“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.”  

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. 

Five checkpoints between Wonto village and Dege county have been set up with dozens of police at each.

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

Dam project faces ‘uncertainty’

The future of the dam project remains uncertain as Chinese officials and media reports provided mixed and contradictory information.

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. 

The government has been conducting preliminary checks 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.

Media reports referring to the local government said that a visiting official asked the leaders of the project coordination team to adhere to their work orders and make arrangements for “the next step of work.”

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