Photos and videos are showing up on Chinese social media of the heavy security presence at the annual Monlam Prayer Festival at Kumbum monastery, located in present day Qinghai province of the People’s Republic of China.
The annual festival which begins on the third day of the Tibetan new year was started by Je Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism in 1409, and is a major annual religious event that takes place across Tibet. The festival banned during the early years of China’s rule of Tibet in the 1960s and 1970s when thousands of monasteries were destroyed and monks either killed or forcibly disrobed.
Since 2008, hundreds of Tibetan monasteries have experienced sustained crackdowns and controls from Chinese security and propaganda agencies, with thousands of monks and nuns being put through reeducation programs where they are made to renounce the Dalai Lama amongst other things. Refusal to make these ‘thought corrections’ have historically led to monks and nuns being expelled from their monasteries, subjected to harsh abuse, and even detention and torture.
The heavy security presence with armored vehicles and troops with automatic weapons doing drills and marching through one of the major Tibetan monasteries appears to have deeply hurt the feelings of the Tibetan people in the area. In rare acts of expression on the heavily policed Chinese social media sites, one person asks, ‘Are we supposed to watch the army or watch the prayer festival’, while another laments, ‘I was so afraid that I forgot to pray’, and one person puts the armed intimidation of prayer goers in the context of China’s repeated calls for social stability by posting, ‘With this many soldiers at a prayer festival, are you working for harmony or war?’
Kumbum monastery’s Monlam Prayer festival is famous throughout Tibet for its highly spectacular and intricate displays of colored butter sculptures which deal with religious and historical subject matters. People travel hundreds of miles to attend the prayer ceremonies and admire the artwork of the monk sculptors.
The 500 year old Monlam Prayer Festival is dedicated to teachers of all religious traditions, social harmony, and world peace.