More Than 100 Arrested Following Dam Protest in Tibetan Region of Sichuan Province

Chinese authorities have reportedly arrested more than 100 Tibetan Buddhist monks and other residents of largely Tibetan Dege County in Sichuan Province, following protests against a vast dam project that would destroy six Buddhist monasteries and force villages within two townships to relocate. 

Tibetans in Dege county in southwestern China’s Sichuan province protest the Chinese government’s construction of a hydropower dam on the Drichu River, 14 February 2024. https://t.co/iT6oP9ONaq

— Tibet.Net (@CTA_TibetdotNet) February 16, 2024

Parts of the protest, which began in mid-February, were captured on video that showed black-clad Chinese forces restraining and pushing Tibetan monks who were vocally but peacefully protesting the dam project.

RFA Tibetan’s Kalden Lodoe and Tenzin Pema described local residents’ concerns about the dam, the unusual protests, and the arrests that followed:

In a rare act of defiance, residents have taken to the streets of Wangbuding township in Dege County in Garze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture since Feb. 14 to oppose the plan to build the 2,240-megawatt Gangtuo hydropower station on the Drichu River (Jinsha in Chinese), which is located on the upper reaches of the Yangtze, one of China’s most important waterways. 

Residents were particularly distraught that construction of the hydroelectric dam would destroy six monasteries, including the Wonto Monastery, which includes ancient murals that date to the 13th century, the sources said.

[…] The detentions reportedly occurred in the Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan, an area with a large population of ethnic Tibetans. Some of the arrested protesters required hospitalization due to rough treatment, sources said. 

[…] Chinese authorities closed all the main roads and imposed strict restrictions, including on digital access, on the villages and monasteries in the Wangbuding township following the Feb. 14 protests. [Source

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) has issued a statement calling on Chinese authorities to respect the rights of peaceful protesters and refrain from violence or arbitrary detention of demonstrators:

According to a source in exile, who is from Derge, the Tibetans who were protesting were from Wento town (Wentuo Zhen) in Derge county who were being asked to relocate to another place near Moshoe bridge in the same county. The exact location of Moshoe bridge could not be ascertained, but the source said some houses have already been built there to house the people.

[…] The International Campaign for Tibet is deeply concerned about the apparent disregard of local Tibetan’s rights and the threat of relocation, connected to the construction of the hydropower station. ICT is calling on the Chinese authorities to respect the rights of peaceful protesters and to refrain from using violence or resort to arbitrary detention of those involved. Moreover, ICT is urging the international community to press on the Chinese government to respect international human rights standards.

The Chinese government continues to pursue blind and commercial infrastructure projects in Tibet that are designed and implemented without regard for environmental impacts or local community concerns. These projects, which include rail roads, highways, and power grids, combined with resource extraction projects such as hydropower dams and mining create economic and environmental costs that disproportionally impact Tibetans, ICT said. [Source]

Dege County (Derge in Tibetan) is located in the majority-Tibetan Garze (also known as Garzê and Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. In 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that Dege was one of the areas in which Chinese authorities used a national anti-crime campaign to crack down on peaceful expressions of dissent by Tibetan residents:

In the rural areas of Tibet where most Tibetans live, the campaign appears to be intimidatory, with the authorities threatening to use force. Publicity materials promoting the campaign show troops or police with military-pattern weapons. Photographs in official media of a meeting to publicize the campaign in Achug (Axu) township, Derge (Dege) county, Sichuan, for example, show local residents seated in rows on the ground with armed police standing over them and a vehicle used to transport criminal suspects. Videos that local authorities issue to promote the campaign show the apparent use of unnecessary or excessive force against Tibetans, including monks. [Source]

Many diasporic Tibetan groups, international human rights organizations, and environmental groups have been critical of the Chinese government’s environmental policies in Tibet and in other regions with large Tibetan populations. Amid competition for control of water and other resources, Tibetan populations have been subject to forced relocations and demolitions of homes and religious sites; have suffered the effects of air, water, and soil pollution; and been threatened, detained, injured, or even killed for expressing opposition to dams and other environmentally disruptive infrastructure projects. In recent years, the Chinese party-state has stepped up the use of high-tech tools such as DNA collection and sequencing, digital and biometric surveillance, big data, and artificial intelligence to further repress and control Tibetans inside and outside of its borders. 

As part of CDT’s recent series of interviews about Tibet with Tibetan activists, writers, researchers, and scholars, CDT’s Sophie Beach spoke with Lobsang Yangtso, the Environmental Researcher at the International Tibet Network, about Tibet’s current, pressing environmental crisis:

There are many cases of people forcefully removed from the rivers so that the Chinese government can build dams. There is no room for public consultation; there is no room for environmental impact assessment. Such cases happen in the Chamdo region as well. We can also talk about the spaces for people to raise their voices: they have so many concerns, and the environmental defenders are put in jail. All of these clearly show that what China tries to project at the global level, it doesn’t reflect in Tibet.

[…] For [the Chinese government], economic development is more important than environmental protection in Tibet. […] Everything is all about gaining and extracting the resources from Tibet and then neglecting the respect for the whole nature and ecosystem. For us, we believe in nature reserves and we believe the rivers are sacred, but these concepts have not been really included in the policymaking. […T]he whole global world is facing climate change, but Chinese political control and colonialism has further degraded the whole Tibet environment.

[…] There are many cases of Tibetans put in jail because of their environmental protection work, which creates a fear among other Tibetans. So I feel that it’s very important for the international community to realize what is actually happening, because sometimes the international community, especially the environmental NGOs, don’t really focus much on Tibet, because they say that there is a lack of information. But lack of information also clarifies that it is under a total, complete authoritarian regime. And so, in that space, we should also find a way and find a solution from that. Since there is a lack of information, they feel that there is no scope in working on this specific area. […] In the long term, there will be a huge gap on the environment issues in Tibet, which will further make it difficult to bring some changes, or actually try to know what is actually really happening in Tibet. [Source]

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Cindy Carter