LHASA, Tibet — The young monk once again found himself in front of microphones and television cameras.
It was much the same as on March 28, 2008, when the monk, Norgye, and dozens of fellow monks barged into a temple chamber where foreign journalists were being escorted around by Chinese government officials. The monks had then cried out, "Tibet is not free." This time, on Tuesday, Norgye had a different message: He had been punished through patriotic re-education, and he had repented.
"I wasn’t beaten or tortured," he said. "We had to learn more about the law. Through education about the law, I realized what we had done in the past was wrong and was against the law."
Norgye, 29, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, was speaking in the ancient inner sanctum of Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, the holiest shrine in Tibetan Buddhism. During the 10-minute interview, he was watched carefully by government employees from Beijing and Lhasa, as well as by Laba, an older monk who was the director of the temple’s administrative office. They were the escorts for a group of foreign journalists who were on a tightly scripted, five-day government tour of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is usually closed to foreign journalists. The manner in which the interview was monitored, with Laba interrupting several times as Norgye spoke, reflected the Chinese government’s anxiety about anything in Tibet that contradicts the official line.
Norgye was not part of the scripted tour; Laba had called him after the journalists insisted on meeting with one of the monks who had protested in the Jokhang on March 28, 2008. That protest had taken place after deadly ethnic rioting led by Tibetans had broken out in the large square outside the Jokhang, in the middle of the bustling Barkhor market, on March 14. What began in Lhasa quickly became an uprising across the Tibetan plateau.
"I didn’t know anything at that time," Norgye said of the March 28 protest.
He said the monks protested because security forces had kept them locked inside the Jokhang during the March 14 protest. "The authorities made all the monks stay in the temple," he said. "We wanted to go outside."
One monk did complain to the journalists on the March 2008 tour that security forces had kept the 117 monks of the temple locked up since March 10. On that day, monks around Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, held a rally on the 49th anniversary of an uprising that had led to the exile of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader. Those peaceful protests led to rioting that began four days later.
Then came the journalists’ tour, and the incendiary statements by 30 monks in the Jokhang who had suddenly burst in on the journalists: "The government is telling lies; it’s all lies," and, "They killed many people," the monks said, according to reporting by an Associated Press correspondent on the trip.
Patriotic re-education — hours of classes on the law and Communist thought — was ordered for many monks like Norgye following the March uprising. Monks were told to denounce the Dalai Lama. The authorities emptied rebellious monasteries, and some monks fled to India.
On Tuesday, asked by reporters whether Tibetans have religious freedom, Norgye said, "Yes," with a quiet voice and bowed head.
The Chinese government forbids all worship of the Dalai Lama, who lives in India. Photos of the Dalai Lama are banned.
Norgye was asked whether there was freedom to worship the Dalai Lama. "It’s freedom for one person to believe or not to believe," he said.