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American film crew kept from China protests

  • Story Highlights
  • After days of filming in Labrang Monastery, crew denied access as protest flares
  • Crew kept in hotel under Chinese supervision, member says
  • Sight of military convoys made journalist fear for safety of monks
  • Labrang Monastery considered important to Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism
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(CNN) -- Chinese authorities sequestered an American film crew in their hotel rooms so they would not see anti-government protests outside a Buddhist temple last week, a member of the crew said.

Monks leave a ceremony at the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, China, on Friday.

Spence Palermo, an American working on a freelance documentary about how China is changing, said his crew was prevented from returning to the centuries-old Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, China, after spending several days filming inside the complex.

Newsweek magazine reported Monday that as many as 4,000 monks and laypersons clashed with police near the monastery Friday and Saturday. The report said they marched to Xiahe "where they pelted government offices and police vehicles with rocks and debris."

The Xiahe protests were part of a wave of anti-Chinese protests centered in nearby Tibet, an autonomous province of China taken over by the Communist government in Beijing almost 60 years ago.

According to the U.S. State Department, Beijing's "repressive social and political controls continued to limit the fundamental freedoms of Tibetans and risked undermining Tibet's unique cultural, religious, and linguistic heritage."

The Labrang Monastery is one of six important to the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, according to the China Tibet Information Center.

Palermo, from Eugene, Oregon, said Chinese officials prevented his group from returning to the Labrang Monastery on Friday, sending them instead to another monastery 40 miles away.

When they returned to Xiahe Friday evening, he said, they were confined to their hotel, watched over constantly, and denied Internet access.

But what troubled Palermo the most, he said, was "not knowing what was happening to the wonderful monks who had welcomed us so heartily into their incredible world and with whom we had bonded with over the last couple of days."

The worry was compounded on Saturday morning, he said, when he looked outside his hotel room and saw a column of Chinese military vehicles heading toward the monastery.

"All of the trucks were filled with soldiers in riot gear," Palermo said.

The sight of the military column, which he estimated contained 400 soldiers, gave him a "feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach," he said.

"Suddenly there was a pounding on the [hotel room] door and a very irate and panicky official started grabbing my gear and hustling me down to the lobby, saying that we had to leave immediately," Palermo said.

As they were taken to another temple 40 miles away, the film crew learned through cell phone calls and messages about the anti-government protests in Tibet and nearby areas, like Xiahe, in China's Gansu province.

Later, their Chinese government minders told them they could not return to their Xiahe hotel and that all their belongings would be gathered and brought to them in Lanzhou, about a five-hour drive away.

"Apparently the protests had spread through the whole town and our hotel -- state-run of course -- had been targeted, all of the windows smashed out and fires burning on the street," Palermo said.


As they were being driven away from the Xiahe area, Palermo said, they encountered a convoy of 20 Chinese military trucks headed toward Xiahe.

"Most of them were loaded with Chinese soldiers, but ... about half of the trucks were empty," he said. "All I could think of was that they would soon be filled with the amazing, wonderful, kind and happy [Labrang Monastery] monks who would most likely be taken away to who knows where." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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