Tibetans protest in Rongwo township in western China's Qinghai province November 9, calling for freedom from Chinese rule. (AP)
Tibetans protest in Rongwo township in western China's Qinghai province November 9, calling for freedom from Chinese rule. (AP)

Confusion grows around missing Tibetan monk filmmaker

Not unusually, an already confusing situation in Tibet just got worse. Twenty-seven Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese this month alone, according to Human Rights Watch. That’s almost one a day. Against this chaotic backdrop, Chinese authorities have issued an arrest order for a missing monk who helped film a 2008 documentary about life in Tibet, according to his film company, Filming for Tibet.

CPJ supporters will know that we just honored self-taught Tibetan filmmaker Dhondup Wangchen with an International Press Freedom Award, recognizing his courage documenting life under Chinese rule with full knowledge that he would face severe repercussions (he is serving a six-year jail term–you can join our petition for his release here). So we’ve been following with concern the latest reports that his assistant on that project, the monk Jigme Gyatso, has been missing, reportedly detained, since September.

Even though four years have passed since the pair made the film, Jigme Gyatso has been under regular police surveillance, and detained repeatedly as a result of his involvement in the project. We announced the award on September 13. Jigme Gyatso disappeared seven days later. We didn’t rule out a possible link.   

Imagine our surprise, then, when Filming for Tibet and exile-run Tibetan news outlet Phayul reported today that Chinese authorities are posting and texting a reward for Jigme Gyatso’s apprehension, saying he is wanted for manslaughter. We don’t have details about this alleged crime, and like Filming for Tibet, we’ll be trying to get details from the public security bureau who issued the alert over the next few weeks. Most worryingly of all, we still have no idea where Jigme Gyatso is.

Because we don’t know anything about the possible charges against him, let’s not speculate about the likelihood of a monk who practices non-violence escaping targeted surveillance for long enough to carry out a fatal assault at a time when Tibet is facing the tightest security clampdown in recent memory. Though we should note, for the record, that Tibetan experts say so many individuals have resorted to self-immolation because setting oneself on fire limits the harm to others, while the community’s attempts at mass protest back in 2008 resulted in violence. Also, that journalists covering the Chinese surveillance apparatus known as “Skynet” say Tibetan areas are blanketed with cameras, and security can be mobilized in two minutes to intervene in public acts of self-harm. In this context, an arrest order against any Tibetan with a history of speaking out against Chinese rule should be treated with suspicion. 

Let’s concentrate instead on what we do know about Jigme Gyatso. After his initial arrest for making the film, he reported being tortured in Chinese prison. Radio Free Asia has reported he lost consciousness due to beatings, and was prodded in the face with electric batons. Publicizing that led to his re-arrest, according to CPJ research. Twice, authorities have moved him from a monastery where he lived, once in 2009, and again in 2012, when they razed his home, Radio Free Asia reported. This man has undergone unrelenting harassment since he collaborated with Dhondup Wangchen. An arrest order issued against him  is a deeply troubling sign. Either he is already in secret detention, and this order is meant as a belated justification. Or, he is really missing–and there is nothing good waiting for him once he is found. 

As long as foreign journalists are prevented from independent travel to Tibet, and reporting by Tibetans themselves remains criminalized, there is simply no way to get to the bottom of mysteries like these. And that is untenable. Twenty-seven Tibetans said so this month in the only way they believe they have left: They set themselves on fire, leaving messages calling for the return of the exiled spiritual and political leader of Tibet, the Dalai Lama. Self-immolation, too, is now a criminal offense, as is documenting or caring for the body of anyone who does, Human Rights Watch reports. The urgent need to find out what has happened to Jigme Gyatso reflects a broader need to restore freedom of information to Tibetans in order to stop this awful tide of protest by those who contest Chinese rule. This is a story that cannot be suppressed any longer.

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