Tibetans tell of China's assault on hermitage

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Two Tibetan monks have escaped from China to freedom in India with smuggled film that shows Chinese labourers using sledgehammers and pickaxes to destroy log cabins at an institute of Buddhist studies whose astounding popularity had alarmed Beijing.

The monks, Paldrub and Tenkyong, are the first witnesses to reach the outside world with accounts of a religious purge on a scale not seen since the winding down of the Cultural Revolution 25 years ago.

The mountain hermitage of Serthar, set in an arid and formerly uninhabited valley of dust and rocks 500 miles by dirt road from the nearest city, was established by a charismatic Tibetan monk, Khenpo Jigme Phuntsok, in 1980 with fewer than 100 students. Attracting men and women from across all the traditional Tibetan Buddhist schools, and as many nuns as monks, its numbers soared to more than 8,000 within 21 years. On special occasions as many as 100,000 people would flock to attend.

Observers saw in Serthar an astounding revival of the Tibetan religious spirit that the communist Chinese had tried so hard to crush. Soon the hillsides above the temple buildings were covered by a forest of simple wooden cabins, housing students from all parts of Tibet and China, and even fromTaiwan and the Chinese communities of Malaysia and elsewhere.

But last summer a large government demolition squad arrived in the valley, accompanied by police and soldiers, and destroyed more than 2,000 cabins. "Army personnel dressed in civilian clothes, and hired workers arrived in trucks," a student monk told researchers from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy. "They were armed with spades, iron rods and cables ... The labourers worked from eight in the morning to seven in the evening ... [They] demolished 200 to 300 huts in a day."

In the film smuggled out by the monks, labourers in straw hats lay into the monks' frail homes, reducing them to chipwood, then cart the wood away to prevent rebuilding. "The huts were demolished with all household possessions and shrines still inside," one witness said. "The workers dragged out invalids and elderly residents, sometimes even dismantling roofs while the owners were still inside."

At the same time the authorities began to expel students under an order of April 2001 requiring more than 7,000 of Serthar's students to leave. Most have now been dispersed.

The Chinese government's hostility to Serthar began in 1990, when Khenpo travelled to India to meet the Dalai Lama. From that time on, his thriving institute came to be regarded as a "breeding ground and hotbed" for "splittist activities of the Dalai clique".

Three years ago, Sonam, a 23-year-old nun, told a Western journalist: "We know our teacher is a great man. He has attained a higher level of knowledge than anyone in the nation, and what he cares most about is teaching."

Khenpo, aged 68 and in poor health, is being held at an unknown location in Chengdu, where he has apparently received treatment at the hands of an army doctor. The politically inconvenient patients of such medical staff do not always survive their treatment.