15. Sep 2007

ISSN: 1864-1407

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Radicalisation in Lithang

Information emerging from Tibet in the aftermath of the public call made in early August 2007 by a nomad chief for the return of the Dalai Lama points to a hardening of the confrontation between Tibetans and the Chinese authorities in the region of Lithang (Chin: Litang), Kardze prefecture (Chin: Ganzi), Sichuan province. Sources report that the Chinese authorities have started an intensive campaign aimed at compelling local Tibetans holding public positions to vilify the Dalai Lama while being videotaped. Meanwhile, a pamphlet distributed at the regional horse festival indicates an increasing radicalisation among local Tibetans. In the sixth decade after taking power in Tibet and with international public attention directed at China in the run up to the Beijing Olympics, the PRC authorities still rely on the very same confrontational course in dealing with local Tibetan discontent which has made the region one of the most restive in Tibet.

Summer in East Tibet, the region traditionally known to Tibetans as Kham, is the season of horse festivals, the most famous of which takes place in Lithang. The Chinese authorities have even enhanced the status of the festival by promoting it as an important destination for inner-Chinese and international tourism, as well as a showcase for Tibetan tradition or pseudo-tradition (like the wearing of exuberant wildlife furs - until the practice was condemned by the Dalai Lama in early 2006). Ironically, the promotion of the festival by the authorities has also guaranteed that any kind of disturbance here has a high international profile.

A Chinese brochure praising Lithang as a tourist destination
On 01 August 2007, a Tibetan nomad chief known as Runggyal Adak called from the festival stage for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. He was immediately taken into custody, but the incident received coverage from international media within a few hours, although eye-witnesses of the incident who stood some distance from the stage reported that they did see "some kind of agitation" in the crowd, but did not realize what was happening until they were told so later. On 03 August, the official Chinese news agency Xinhua confirmed the incident and claimed Runggyal Adak's intention was to "split the country and harm national unity". The situation escalated fast and initially hundreds of Tibetans sat on the street around the police station where Runggyal Adak was believed to be detained. They later moved to the edge of the city and swore not to leave before his release. Meanwhile, a large security force had reached Lithang, establishing check points and monitoring communications. This was also amply documented in pictures and videos which reached an international audience, thus showing the futility of attempts to conceal such incidents. A first ultimatum by the authorities set on 08 August passed without incident, but the stand-off finally ended a few days later when local Tibetan leaders allegedly urged the nomads to leave in order to avoid a violent clash. According to the Hong Kong-based Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, Runggyal Adak was prosecuted on 27 August and his relative Adrug Lopoe, allegedly the "mastermind" behind the "01 August incident", on 11 September, both for "inciting to subvert state power". It is believed they will be tried in court before the 17th National Congress to be held in October 2007. In early September, Radio Free Asia reported that a purge of the local leadership had begun with several Tibetan county leaders being replaced by Chinese.

A Chinese brochure praising Lithang as a tourist destination.
Information received by TibetInfoNet state that on 11 September, a "high-ranking Chinese official with Minister rank" arrived in Lithang with a large number of security forces and announced that he was going to stay there for six months. Clerics and "educated Tibetans" were summoned to meetings and told that they must denounce the Dalai Lama. They were told that the USA and Europe are hostile to China and that the Dalai Lama is speaking out against China on their behalf, using religion for political purposes while "eating" money from the USA and Europe. They were then summoned to make statements against the Dalai Lama, along these lines, and told that these statements would be recorded on video. Sources report that they were offered rewards for compliance while those who bluntly refused were taken into custody and others given a deadline by which time they had to comply, however these details need further confirmation. There are also unconfirmed reports that monks and Tibetans working in Chinese offices were ordered to demonstrate against the Dalai Lama and to wear animal skins while doing so.

English text of a Chinese brochure praising Lithang as a tourist destina...
The region of Lithang and the wider Kardze prefecture (Chin: Ganzi) have been the most restive regions since the advent of the People's Republic of China's (PRC) presence in Tibet. The first armed confrontations between Chinese troops and locals took place here in the 1950s and the area played a crucial role in the establishment of the 'Khampa' guerilla movement that lasted for two decades (1). Tensions grew in the prefecture in more recent years, with crackdowns on Buddhist teachers suspected of being close to the Dalai Lama - Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog and Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, and their followers - as well as with a number of less spectacular incidents. This is reflected in the number of Tibetan political detentions in the region. Out of 81 currently known Tibetan political prisoners, 24, or roughly one in three, are from Sichuan province, with 15, or roughly one in five, from Kardze prefecture alone. Moreover, 14 of these were detained in 2004 or later, and 11 in 2006 or later.

The reconstructed monastery of Lithang (it was destroyed by bombing in 1...
Runggyal Adak's action might have found global media coverage, but it appears not to have been the only expression of Tibetan discontent at the Lithang festival. TibetInfoNet received an image of a clandestine flyer distributed either on the first or second day of the festival. The flyer bears in essence a far more radical message than Runggyal Adak's. The statement is handwritten in the Tibetan language and reads:

"Tibetan people live harmoniously at the highest point on earth and are a nation that seeks truth and justice. It also boasts several thousand years of history. From the first Tibetan king, Nyatri Tsanpo, to Langdarma [the last warrior king of Tibet] for forty-two dynasties Tibet was a mighty nation that exercised freedom and independence. Due to dark times Tibet has become a fatherless orphan. Before the orphan could come of age the greedy imperialist Chinese took this opportunity to kill people from the three Cholkas [three traditional Tibetan Provinces: U-Tsang, Kham and Amdo] and seized our hard-earned wealth. For fifty years the natural environment, forests, wildlife and mineral resources which our ancestors safeguarded like their own lives, have been shamelessly and insatiably exploited. Moreover, it is endeavoured to annihilate our religion and culture. The six million Tibetans will never forget the suffering of this persecution for tens of thousands of years to come. We demand Tibetan independence. Any delay [in fulfilling this demand] will lead to tens of thousands of Tibetans resolutely sacrificing their lives".

The flyer distributed at the Lithang festival in early August 2007.
The most obvious feature of the statement is that, contrary to most comparable documents, and to Runggyal Adak's reported words, it makes no mention of the Dalai Lama (2) and takes instead a pronounced militant tone. This seems to indicate that a section of the Tibetan population, increasingly frustrated by the intransigence of the Chinese authorities, are coming to reject the Tibetan leader's course of non-violence and accommodation and now look for more radical options. Such a possible development has been predicted and feared by a number of observers of the Tibetan situation. It would also reveal that half a century of efforts on the side of the Chinese authorities to confront Tibetan resistance in the region with repression and propaganda might have superficially diluted the influence of the Dalai Lama, but they have also reopened the way to the violent clashes which took roots back in the 1950s.

1: The movement is better known among Tibetans as Chushi Gangdrug (Four Rivers, Six Ranges).
2: The mention of Tibet having become a 'fatherless child', could, however, indirectly refer to the Dalai Lama, or to the time between the death of the 13th Dalai Lama and maturity of the 14th Dalai Lama.

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