Tibet Watch

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China has destroyed large areas of one of Tibet's biggest Buddhist sites, satellite images reveal

Yarchen Gar in 2017, prior to extensive demolitions on the west bank of the river.jpg

Satellite images acquired by Tibet Watch verify that large-scale demolitions have levelled almost half of Yarchen Gar. Yarchen Gar, located in Palyul County in eastern Tibet, is one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist sites in the world.

A wave of demolitions took place at Yarchen Gar in August 2019. They are part of a long-term effort by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities to decrease the number of residents at the site.

Before and after satellite images reveal the most recent demolitions that shows a clear contrast on the west bank of the river running through Yarchen Gar. The images reveal a bare ground where a densely populated area of the community once resided on.

In addition to the demolitions, thousands of monks and nuns have also been forced out of their homes and places of worship in Yarchen Gar this year. In July 2019, Tibet Watch was able to confirm that 70 nuns were evicted from Yarchen Gar. However, local sources claim there have been at least 3,500 removals this year

Following the removal, the 70 nuns were forced back to their native Jomda County, nearly 300 kilometers away. Furthermore, they were detained for two to three months and forced to undergo patriotic re-education. Patriotic re-education is a strategy enforced by the CCP that involves detainees being compelled to praise the People’s Republic of China and denounce Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

 It is difficult to get information out of Yarchen Gar due to its remote location and the security presence in and around the site. Foreign visitors are currently barred from the area and Chinese authorities have increased levels of surveillance inside Yarchen Gar. The area is surveilled by  around 600 military personnel now deployed there to monitor the remaining inhabitants. In 2018, 3,500 homes were torn down. Additionally, residents were forbidden from renovating their homes or building new structures.  Among the areas severely affected by the demolitions was the west bank of the river. Satellite imagery taken in April 2018 showed that numerous homes had already been torn down in this area to make way for several new roads.  The homes in between these roads have now been demolished as well.

Photo evidence from the site suggests that a key reason for the demolitions and removals is to open Yarchen Gar up to tourists. A hotel and several car parks have been constructed to the north of the community and roads have been widened to facilitate access. 

Yarchen Gar was established in 1985 and in the ensuing decades, the monastic community had seen its population grow to an estimated 10,000 people. The community is sometimes known as “The City of Nuns” due to the large proportion of resident being nuns.

Comparison 2013-18-19.png

Although the latest round of demolitions reportedly began in July 2019, forced removals and demolitions have been taking place at the site since at least 2001. This activity has escalated in recent years. In 2016 alone, 1,000 residents were reportedly forced to leave and, in August 2017, 3,500 homes were scheduled for demolition so that roads could be widened. Residents were told to dismantle their own homes and offered minimal compensation for their losses.

The demolitions, forced removals, paired with the development of tourist infrastructure, echoes events at Larung Gar in nearby Serthar County. In Larung Gar, at least 4,800 people were forcibly evicted and 4,700 buildings, mostly residences, were torn down between June 2016 and May 2017. At the same time, hotels were constructed, and roads widened (10).

The demolitions have continued despite the insistent appeals of religious authorities at Yarchen Gar. After being forced to announce a previous round of demolitions in August 2017, the Lama at the site called on residents to be calm, patient and not to express opposition to, or details about, the demolitions through social media. He explained the demolition order was: "like a rock falling from the high mountain - no one could reverse it". Another senior monk from Yarchen Gar travelled to the TAR to request that authorities permitted monks and nuns from the TAR who have not yet been evicted to stay in Yarchen Gar. The authorities did not approve of this request.

John Jones