LABRANG MONASTERY, Gansu, China, April 9, 2008 — -- A Buddhist monk was handing over a white shawl to me, a Tibetan ritual used to welcome a visitor. I was about to enter a prayer hall in Labrang monastery to observe monks chanting sutras.
But as I took the shawl from the monk, I heard some sort of commotion; it seemed as if some people were shouting. I held on to the shawl and rushed into the monastery's outer courtyard along with the other reporters.
We had all been invited to this Tibetan region by the Chinese government so we could see how life had returned to normal after March's unrest.
But just like last month's official press trip to Lhasa, ours too was interrupted by protests.
There in the courtyard were 15 young monks marching. Some were chanting loudly, most had grim expressions on their faces.
Two monks at the head of the column were holding a Tibetan banner, identified as a sign of support of the exiled Dalai Lama and considered "reactionary" by China's regime. One monk in the group covered his head with part of his saffron robe.
I approached one of them and asked in Chinese what the others were shouting. He translated from the Tibetan, "We want human rights! We want freedom!"
The young monk went on, "We want the Dalai Lama to return! We want to preserve our religion!"
The protest continued for about 10 to 15 minutes. Our government guides looked on from the sidelines. Then they approached us, urging us to go to the prayer hall and continue with the schedule.
When an older monk approached us, the face of the young monk I was talking to suddenly betrayed a sense of fear, and he turned around and started to walk away.
The demonstration petered out as more older monks showed up and persuaded the younger monks to leave.
I went back to the prayer hall with the other reporters and continued the press tour. Inside the dark hall were rows of Tibetan monks sitting silently and doing their prayers.
Labrang is one of the major monasteries in the school of Tibetan Buddhism led by the Dalai Lama.
Later, when we asked a senior monk at a news conference about the protest, he said the younger monks were only a small minority of the more than 1,000 in Labrang monastery.
He said these protesting monks did not represent the majority of monks. He added that these young monks did not understand the history of China and Tibet and were misled by "separatists."
With the Tibetan shawl still in my hand, I boarded the bus to continue our guided tour, wondering what fate lay ahead for these young monks who defied the authorities to express their grievances to our visiting group.