Expelled from their monasteries, nuns face violence and rape in horrific “detention centers.”
By Tashi Choedon
The Assault on Yachen Gar’s Nuns
The recent news of the CCP’s detention of around 3,500 Tibetan monks and nuns from the Yachen Gar Buddhist Centre, currently situated in Palyul County, Kardze Prefecture, Sichuan Province, unveils another dimension to China’s ongoing persecution of minority groups such as Tibetans and Uyghurs. Looking back at the history of CCP oppression, a similar pattern of inflicting abuse and torture upon the Tibetans has been a pervasive feature of China’s policy in Tibet. The CCP’s effort to “sinicize” Tibetan religion and culture through indoctrination programmes continues. The detained monks and nuns are forced to become “patriotic” towards China in internment camp, and any hint of dissent or resistance would lead them to undergo severe torture and abuse.
Taking stock of China’s human rights abuses of Tibetan people inside Tibet, we can see that detainees have been overwhelmingly monks and nuns. And one of the most striking features of such repression is the gender-based violence perpetrated against Tibetan nuns. The CCP’s heavy crackdown on dissent and resistance is not unknown. However, amidst such oppressive milieu, what specific kinds of violence are exclusive to Tibetan nuns? How their overlapping identities of gender, ethnicity and religious beliefs render them doubly marginalised?
Subverting Buddhism Through Arbitrary Detention of Tibetan Monks and Nuns
Yachen Gar monastery, like Larung Gar, is a non-political sphere, a hub of monastic education, academic learning and meditation training since it was founded in 1985 by Achuk Rinpoche. The institute, as envisioned by its founder, is one of the places dedicated to the preservation of Tibetan Buddhist culture after the Cultural Revolution. It has been home to an estimated 10,000 nuns and monks belonging to different parts of Tibet. It is one of the largest monasteries of nuns in the world. Hence, it has also been called the “city of nuns.” After the eviction of Tibetans and subsequent demolition of Larung Gar, the number of residents at Yachen Gar has increased.
However, Yachen Gar Centre has been a topic of contention for the Chinese authorities, due to the expansion of Tibetan Buddhist influence that is attracting people from various parts of the world. The Jiang Zemin led-Communist Party administration in 2001 had partly carried out the demolition of many dwelling places for nuns and monks. In 2017, the Chinese authorities razed “over a hundred dwellings of nuns” after their forced eviction from the Centre. The site was banned to foreign visitors for two years. And now, with the Xi Jinping’s administration, the state has reasserted its policy to incorporate “religions” into Chinese “socialist” characteristics, as evidenced from the speech Xi made in April 2016 at the National Religious Work Conference, in which he emphasised the need of actively guiding “the adaptation of religions to socialist society, an important task in supporting China’s religions’ persistence in the direction of sinicization.”
But in reality, Xi Jinping’s policy is insidiously reducing Tibetan Buddhism within the framework of a monolithic Chinese state discourse. It is a plot to reduce the influence of Tibetan Buddhism and strengthen and uphold the CCP’s monopoly of nationalism. Essentially, it is form of persecution of Tibetan monks and nuns, who are already in the periphery of the Chinese state apparatus. And Tibetans nuns and monks at Yachen Gar, who can be naturally seen as the guardians of Tibetan Buddhism, pose a threat to the state’s policy of sinicization.
A series of evictions in May 2019 has seen 3,500 people being forcibly expelled and now, as of July 16, the number has increased to 7,100, with the expulsion of another 3,600 monks and nuns from the Yachen Buddhist Centre. Those expelled are then held in detention centres for two to three months.
Violence on the Nuns
The detained nuns are made to disrobe and wear military uniforms, and nuns who are formerly from Jomda County are being made to routinely sing patriotic “Red Songs” praising the CCP. These nuns are also encouraged to watch “propaganda war films”: movies that glorified Chinese victories over Japan. When some of the nuns were found to have “broken down” and “wept,” they were severely beaten for their “alleged show of disloyalty.”
In simile detention centres, nuns are subjected to sexual violence. A testimony by a monk who spent four months in the detention centre situated in Sog County, Nagchu Prefecture, Tibetan Autonomous Region, confirms such reports of sexual violence. According to a report published by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, citing a Tibetan monk, the nuns were forced to pay from their own pocket for their military uniforms. The report also states that monks and nuns were sent to prison without any due process, and without having committed any crime.
One of the most horrific aspect of the CCP’s human rights abuses is the gender-based violence nuns are subjected to in the detention centres. The monk witnessed Chinese officers sexually assaulting nuns by “fondling the breasts” of the nuns who fainted during military training in prison camps. There have been many cases of Tibetan Buddhist nuns being sexually assaulted, as told by the same monk. Chinese party cadres were accused of “groping nuns’ bodies” and “lying in the nuns’ bedroom pressing unconscious nuns underneath.”
These nuns, who are deprived of their right to pursue their monastic education, are also routinely subjected to physical and sexual violence. Considering the fact that the violence of sexual abuse occurs, it is unlikely that nuns of Yachen Gar will be exempted from similar gender-based violence by the CCP authorities, as these nuns are at present the targets of Xi’s most repressive political measures. It also becomes extremely difficult for these nuns to seek legal recourse, when the CCP law enforcement officers themselves are complicit in perpetrating state-sanctioned and gendered violence against them. Indeed, the state itself is the symbol of unbridled power and discriminatory policies that silences the voices of Tibetans nuns.
Colonial studies argue that the narrative of the colonisers’ subjugation of the colonised people is commonly disguised as liberation and bringing modernity to primitives. This rhetoric is often used in justifying mass murder and violence. The sexual abuse of the Tibetan Buddhist nuns by the CCP officers can be seen as the CCP’s (atheistic) attempt to subvert Buddhism by going against the set principles of its philosophy, and to impose Chinese hegemony in all spheres of Tibetan life. There are many recorded cases of forcing nuns and monks to get married, forcing them to carry faeces over thangka, raping nuns with cattle prods in prisons, and sexually assaulting them in detention centres. The female nuns’ bodies have thus become a tool to advance the CCP’s political ambitions.
CCP tactics of rounding up Tibetans monks and nuns in Tibet strikes a parallel ring to the mass detention of another “minority group,” i.e. Uyghur Muslims in East Turkestan (the name Uyghurs give to what Chinese call Xinjiang). Just as Tibetan women, Uyghur women have been subjected to harsh policy with the launch of “Project Beauty” that ban their veils so that they would “look modern.” Refusal is followed by arbitrary detention, and extreme measures to “re-educate” them on “socialist” values in what the CCP calls transformation through education camps.
Intersectionality and Oppression
Kimberle Crenshaw proposed a theory of intersectionality to describe the experiences of black women in the US, who face multiple forms of oppression that “intersect” based on their gender and racial identities. Similarly, in the context of Tibetan women under CCP rule, their ethnic and gender identities, i.e., being Tibetan and women, make them vulnerable to such multiple and converging forms of discrimination. Tibetans, particularly (in this case) nuns, can be doubly marginalised because of the intersecting inequalities meted out to their bodies, religious belief and ethnicity. Their ethnicity and gender, in an increasingly Han-centric environment, restrict their social mobility as they are usually under heightened state-surveillance that restricts their possibility to travel beyond their home county. Monks and nuns are not allowed to go back to their monasteries and should regularly report to the local authorities of their respective hometowns.
One wonders about the fate of monks and nuns of Yachen Gar after their eviction. Once they are forced to disrobe and are not allowed to continue their monastic pursuits, how can they fulfil their aspirations of pursuing the life they want? Since most of these monks and nuns will not have any laypersons’ skills to sustain themselves, how will they navigate through life or earn a livelihood? What about their basic human dignity? Or their freedom? How will they recover from the physical and mental violence and agony they have endured in the detention camps, if they are not allowed access to the healthcare system?