Tibetan monastery a 'virtual prison': exiled monk

Beijing, China - The exiled head of a Tibetan monastery in China has described it as a "virtual prison", saying monks are taking their lives in despair after two men set themselves alight over alleged repression.

The attempted self-immolations happened on Friday near Kirti monastery in the southwestern province of Sichuan, the scene of repeated protests since early this year as monks complain their religious freedom is being flouted.

Citing exiled Tibetan sources, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said the two who set themselves on fire were former monks and had died, but a local official told AFP they were still alive.

According to the exiled head of the monastery -- who now lives in India's Dharamshala where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based -- people's lives in the area have become so intolerable they are choosing to die, ICT said.

"With the Chinese government making arbitrary arrests and passing unimaginably harsh sentences on the basis of false representations and allegations, for month after month, (the monastery) has been turned into a virtual prison," Kirti Rinpoche said.

"All the monks, young and old, (are) subjected day and night to deprivation of all freedoms," he told ICT.

"Tibetan religion and culture is under such unthinkable repression that it has reached a point of desperation where people would choose to die rather than go on living."

Many Tibetans in China are angry about what they view as increasing domination by the country's majority Han ethnic group, the erosion of their culture and alleged religious repression.

The Kirti monastery has become a flashpoint for the growing fury. This year alone, six men there have set themselves alight in protest, according to the ICT.

A monk called Phuntsog started the trend in March, when he self-immolated on the third anniversary of anti-government unrest in the area -- a move that sparked protests and a subsequent security crackdown on the monastery.

In August, China jailed three monks for between 10 and 13 years for helping Phuntsog kill himself, raising criticism from the United States and rights groups.

China, however, says that Tibetan living standards have improved markedly over the years, with billions of dollars in Chinese investment, and that religious freedom is guaranteed in the country.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said religious activities in Aba prefecture, where Kirti is located, and other Tibetan areas were being conducted "normally".

"The Chinese government will, as it always does, stick to the policy of religious freedom and administrate religious affairs in accordance with the law."

According to the Washington-based ICT, one of the two men who protested on Friday passed away a day later, while the other died in hospital on Tuesday.

But a spokesman for the Communist Party committee in Aba town told AFP on condition of anonymity that the two were still in hospital receiving treatment.

"I have no information on whether they are in life-threatening conditions," he said. "But they have achieved nothing, it will not influence government policy decisions."

He added that authorities had not made any specific educational arrangements for the monastery. "They have their own classes and teachers, and they will teach the monks not to be extreme."

Calls to Aba police station went unanswered, and a man at Kirti monastery would not comment on the situation.

New York-based Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, called on the Chinese government to "immediately end excessive restrictions" on Kirti monastery.

It also urged authorities to "lift similarly heavy-handed security measures imposed on other lay communities and monasteries in the region".

The group said the government had imposed measures on Tibetan areas in China including security raids, arbitrary detentions of monks, and a permanent police presence inside monasteries.