AFP[Monday, March 02, 2009 21:10] BEIJING (AFP)-Security forces have surrounded a Tibetan monastery in a tense region of southwest China after monks there demonstrated against Chinese repression, activist groups said Monday.
They said Sunday’s demonstration occurred in an area of Sichuan province’s Aba prefecture where a monk set himself alight last week to protest against China’s 58-year rule of the Himalayan region.
Tensions are high in Tibetan-populated areas ahead of the 50th anniversary on March 10 of a failed uprising against Chinese rule that led to revered spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fleeing into exile.
Several hundred monks at the Sey monastery in Aba staged the protest after Chinese officials banned prayers during a traditional Buddhist festival, the US-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) said, citing sources there.
“Several hundred monks marched from the monastery after officials banned them from praying, calling to be allowed to celebrate the Monlam prayer festival and for authorities to release all Tibetan prisoners,” the group said.
It said armed police had surrounded the monastery after the monks returned there and it was now likely to be under a lockdown, although it had no more information.
A woman resident reached by phone by AFP confirmed there was a protest.
“Yes, monks protested yesterday morning. I don’t know what they wanted,” she said, declining further comment.
Several other locals reached by phone refused comment. Activist groups have reported that residents in Tibetan areas have been threatened with detention if they talk to foreign reporters.
The New York-based Students for a Free Tibet also reported on Sunday’s rally, saying that between 300 and 400 soldiers tried to stop the protest as the monks marched out of the monastery.
“The monastery is now sealed and there is a heavy military presence outside the main road,” the group said in a statement.
Government officials and police in Aba told AFP on Monday they did not know of the reported protest.
The Dalai Lama, other exiles and activist groups have reported a massive security build-up in Tibet and neighbouring areas with Tibetan populations ahead of the uprising anniversary.
The Dalai Lama has accused Chinese authorities of trying to provoke Tibetans into demonstrating to justify a huge crackdown.
Tibetans took to the streets on March 14 last year, after four days of peaceful protests to mark the 49th anniversary of the uprising.
Tibet’s government-in-exile says the government crackdown following last year’s unrest left 200 Tibetans dead.
China says police killed one “insurgent” and blamed Tibetan “rioters” for 21 deaths.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in Aba during last year’s unrest, killing at least seven Tibetans, activist groups said.
On Friday last week, a monk set himself on fire near the Kirti monastery, several kilometres (miles) from the Sey monastery.
The monk, in his late 20s, was shot after dousing himself with petrol and setting himself alight, the London-based group Free Tibet said.
Chinese authorities on Saturday confirmed a man had set himself alight but Xinhua news agency Monday quoted Chinese authorities denying police shot him.
Getting independent information from Aba and other Tibetan areas is extremely difficult, with travel agents telling AFP foreign tourists are banned from visiting Tibet in March while foreign media are banned indefinitely.