BEIJING (Reuters) – Chinese authorities are renovating one of the world’s largest centers of learning for Tibetan Buddhism to prevent overcrowding and fires, a state-run newspaper said on Tuesday, denying Tibetan rights groups’ charges of demolition and evictions.
Groups including the British-based International Campaign for Tibet say demolition work began last week at Larung Gar in Garze, a heavily Tibetan part of the southwestern province of Sichuan.
Tibetan-populated areas of western China, including in Sichuan, have in recent years been at the epicenter of self-immolation and other protests against Chinese rule.
China routinely denies accusations by exiles and rights groups of rights abuses in Tibetan parts of the country and insists it allows freedom of religion, blaming exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for promoting unrest.
The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, quoted an unnamed government official in Garze as saying Buddhist leaders themselves have been trying to reduce the number of unregistered monks and nuns at Larung Gar.
“The site has grown immensely in recent years, with a steady influx of tourists and lay people from other provinces and foreigners, that even monastery leaders have lost track of the number of their personnel,” the official said, in a report in the paper’s English-language edition.
“It is unfair and a burden on them to use offerings given by local believers to provide free accommodation and education to the unregistered,” the official added.
The “dismantling” of cabins which dot the hillside around the center and where people live will help give firefighters access as there have been several fires in recent years, the newspaper added.
The Global Times said the government was requiring that only the roughly 8,000 monks and nuns already registered there be allowed to live at Larung Gar.
The International Campaign for Tibet said authorities have ordered the number of monks and nuns living there to be cut in half to 5,000.
China heavily restricts visits by foreign reporters to Tibetan parts of the country where there have been protests or other sensitive activities, making an independent assessment of the situation extremely difficult.
Calls to government officials in Garze seeking comment went unanswered.
Chinese troops marched into Tibet in 1950, eventually setting up what China now calls the Tibet Autonomous Region, though there are also large Tibetan populations in other southwestern parts of China including Sichuan and Gansu.
The Dalai Lama denies Chinese charges of being a separatist or of orchestrating protests, saying he simply wants genuine autonomy for his homeland. He fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ryan Woo)