Tensions have increased in the Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) area of eastern Tibet, present-day Sichuan province, with the execution of a Tibetan prisoner that may be linked to the political crackdown following a protest in support of the Dalai Lama by nomad Runggye Adak in August.
This report documents the following new developments in the region:
- Further detentions of Tibetans, including a young art teacher, local nomad who expressed support for Runggye Adak and the Dalai Lama, and a senior monk respected for his commitment to Tibetan education, in the Lithang area
- An increased and intimidating military presence in the two neighboring counties of Lithang and Kardze, both in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (in the Tibetan area of Kham)
- An intensified political campaign that requires Tibetan monks, nuns, laypeople and children to denounce the Dalai Lama. The stepping up of this anti-Dalai Lama campaign in the region coincides with a period when the Dalai Lama himself is increasingly received by world leaders and respected for his leadership on peace and non-violence.
The execution of Kunjam
According to reports received by ICT, a Tibetan named Kunjam was executed on or around September 14 in Lithang (Chinese: Litang). Kunjam had initially been detained in 2003, because of his involvement in a fight with two Chinese men over an issue of land according to one report from a Tibetan source. The two Chinese men were apparently investigating the possibility of mineral extraction at a local mountain that is regarded by Tibetans as a holy site. Although the full circumstances are not known, it appears that one of the Chinese men was killed and Kunjam was linked to the death and imprisoned. It is not known if he was initially sentenced to death. But reports received by ICT indicate that his execution was hasty and unexpected, and may have been linked to the authorities’ hardline approach towards political dissent in his local area through August and September.
The current crackdown in Lithang follows the protest by nomad Runggye Adak in front of an audience of thousands at the Lithang horse racing festival on August 1. In an apparently unconnected incident, a fortnight before Runggye Adak’ protest, the wording ‘Complete independence’ (Tibetan: ‘Rang Btsan Gtsang Ma’) had been written on the entrance gate to the festival area.
Tibetans in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (in the Tibetan region of Kham) are known for their strong sense of Tibetan identity and nationalism; many Khampas were involved in resistance to the Chinese invasion in 1949-50. Hardline Chinese campaigns against the Dalai Lama and economic policies that have led to the loss of their land and livelihoods as well as the extraction of minerals by Chinese prospectors have caused deep resentment in the region. The recent intensification of restrictions on religious expression, and the requirement to denounce the Dalai Lama, have compounded frustration in the region and appear to be increasing the likelihood of Tibetans taking risks to express their discontent.
The stepping up of an anti-Dalai Lama campaign in the neighboring counties of Lithang and Kardze, with more stringent requirements than usual for both the monastic community and laypeople to denounce their religious leader, coincides with a period when the Dalai Lama himself is increasingly respected on the world stage for his leadership on peace and non-violence. Next week, on October 17, U.S. President Bush will become the first sitting U.S. President to meet the Dalai Lama publicly, when the Dalai Lama is honored with the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, DC. On September 23, German Chancellor Angela Merkel met the Dalai Lama in Berlin, becoming the first German chancellor to do so despite stern reprimands from Beijing and warnings that it could damage economic contacts. Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer has also recently met the Dalai Lama, and Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, has announced his intention to meet the exiled Tibetan leader despite objections from China.
Detentions and crackdown in Lithang following local nomad’s protest
The detention of an art and music teacher at Lithang Middle School called Kunkhyen at the end of August appears to have followed a systematic investigation of local people suspected of being loyal to the Dalai Lama or of supporting the views expressed by Runggye Adak, who is still in detention after his protest. (ICT report, New images confirm dispersal of Tibetans by armed police after Lithang protest: Runggye Adak’s relatives taken into custody). Kunkhyen, who is in his early thirties, is a popular local musician and artist known for his skill on the Tibetan stringed instrument the ‘dranyan’, and for painting murals in some of the local monasteries. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Sources report aggressive searches of the residences of relatives and associates of 53-year Runggye Adak, a father of 11 children and respected figure in his nomadic community.
Runggye Adak’s nephew, Lupoe, a senior monk at Lithang monastery, was detained on August 21, according to reports. Two of Rungyye Adak’s other nephews were detained just before Lupoe and apparently beaten severely before being released. Lupoe’s current whereabouts are unknown, but local people fear that he may face serious charges, possibly due to the position he took on the protest of Runggye Adak. Local police pasted posters in the town after Lupoe’s detention announcing the detention of ‘several’ individuals, and warning that anyone who attempted to help them or petition on their behalf would also be imprisoned.
Lupoe, who is in his early forties, is respected in the local area for his Buddhist scholarship and for his concern about the Tibetan education of young people. He was involved in the administration of the monastery, which is now a target for increasingly repressive political campaigns. His detention appears to follow a pattern that has been observed in Tibet in recent years, of detaining senior Tibetan monks who have influence in the wider monastic and lay community, and who are believed to be loyal to the Dalai Lama. Often these individuals – such as Geshe Sonam Phuntsog, for example, who was tortured and sentenced to five years in prison from November 2004 after holding a long life prayer puja for the Dalai Lama (ICT report, Tibetans arrested after organizing prayer ceremony for the Dalai Lama) – have been under observation by the authorities for some time.
ICT has also received reports of the detention of a Tibetan nomad in his early thirties from Lithang called Jarib Lothog in a hotel room in Chengdu, which may be linked to local peoples’ expressions of concern for Runggye Adak. Full details of the reason for his detention and his current whereabouts are not known.
The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD), based in Dharamsala, India, reported on September 28 that a senior monk at Lithang monastery, Lobsang Phuntsog, was detained on September 15 following a raid carried out in his monastery residence by Lithang County Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials (TCHRD report, September 28, www.tchrd.org). Thirty year old Lobsang Phuntsog was ordained as a monk at Lithang while in his teens and according to the same report excelled in the art of monastic dance (Cham).
TCHRD also reported the detention of a Tibetan nomad in his twenties called Adruk Kalgyam, after he expressed support for Runggye Adak and for the Dalai Lama during a public meeting called by local officials in his local area of Lithang on September 2 (TCHRD, October 8).
Witnessing Runggye Adak’s protest
Runggye Adak, who staged the protest at the Lithang horse festival in front of an audience of thousands, was originally detained in the police detention center in Lithang town, but has reportedly been moved closer to the provincial capital of Chengdu. Immediately after his detention, local Tibetans and nomads in the area for the summer horse festival, where he made his protest, crowded into the courtyard of the police station to protest his detention before being dispersed. Several days afterwards, Tibetans gathered outside the town were dispersed by riot police using tear-gas and firing guns into the air (images were provided to ICT by a visitor to the area, see ICT report, New images confirm dispersal of Tibetans by armed police after Lithang protest: Runggye Adak’s relatives taken into custody).
An eyewitness to Runggye Adak’s protest told ICT: “I saw him walk onto the stage, which was full of Chinese military and officials during an official ceremony. He was very calm, very dignified and he spoke clearly. I couldn’tunderstand what he was saying because I don’t know the Kham dialect, but I could see Tibetans around me shaking their heads in sadness, because they were fearful for him, and others openly agreeing with him.”
During his protest, which emphasized the importance of the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, Runggye Adak reportedly also called for the release of senior monk Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche, also from the Lithang area, who is serving a life sentence on charges of inciting ‘separatism’. Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche is widely respected in Lithang; before his imprisonment, he pioneered the development of Tibetan social and cultural institutions, brought schools and medical facilities to the local community, and attempted to limit the exploitation of the area’s natural resources. His imprisonment continues to be deeply resented in the area and his welfare is of continued concern to Tibetans in Lithang and elsewhere.
Campaign against the Dalai Lama stepped up – intensification of ‘patriotic education’ in Kardze
There has been a buildup of hundreds of troops in Lithang county, particularly in the main Lithang town, in recent weeks. A high-ranking Chinese official together with security personnel and other Chinese cadres have also arrived in Lithang, according to Tibetan sources. At least two senior Tibetan leaders in Lithang who work for the local government have lost their jobs, which sources say could be indicative of distrust at higher levels of their ability to remain loyal to government rulings at a time of intensified oppression of local people.
Local people have been required to make denunciations of the Dalai Lama and of Runggye Adak’s protest, while children in local schools have been asked to write essays denouncing the Dalai Lama and his ‘separatist clique’.
According to reports from sources close to unfolding events in the area, Chinese cadres have presided over political sessions in Lithang monastery, and in local government offices as well as with leaders of nomad groups. During these meetings, Tibetans have been told that they must denounce the Dalai Lama or risk imprisonment. One Tibetan source said: “The main points of the meeting are always the same: denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama, oppose the ‘separatist clique’, of which Runggye Adak is said to be a part, and finally, to be grateful to the Communist government.” The same source added that armed military personnel have been present at many of the meetings in order to increase levels of intimidation.
An American Buddhist scholar and practitioner who has traveled frequently to Tibet told ICT: “It is devastating for a Tibetan to be required to denounce the Dalai Lama. A basic vow of a Tibetan monk, nun, or lay practitioner is to deeply respect and always maintain a heart connection with the teacher. When Tibetans denounce the Dalai Lama, they feel as though they are breaking that heart connection, that critical link, to their root guru and most important teacher. It is one thing for Chinese officials to denigrate the Dalai Lama in front of Tibetans, but it is immensely distressing for Tibetans to be forced to do so themselves.”
Government representatives have reportedly told Tibetan cadres there that if they continue to serve the government loyally they will be rewarded with increased salaries, and that they should never be ‘deceived’ by the Dalai Lama.
During one meeting last week, a senior Tibetan monk at Lithang monastery reportedly refused to denounce the Dalai Lama. There are reports from the area of other refusals from Tibetans to submit to the demands of the cadres carrying out the patriotic education sessions. Feelings are running high in the area, and some sources have expressed fears that the crackdown may worsen due to the confrontational strategies used by the authorities.
Officials carrying out a new ‘patriotic education’ campaign in Lithang from the first week of September have warned local people that they must not keep any photographs of the Dalai Lama on their home shrine or in monasteries, and that government workers could risk losing their jobs if they worship at local monasteries. (TCHRD report, September 28, 2007). A Tibetan visitor to Lithang monastery soon after Runggye Adak’s detention reported the atmosphere to be “fearful and tense”. More than 500 monks live at Lithang monastery, which is one of the most important religious centers in the area, with hundreds more living in satellite monasteries in close proximity.
According to information received by ICT, several weeks before Runggye Adak’s protest, the Chinese authorities circulated a petition at Lithang monastery for monks to sign saying that they did not want the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. A Tibetan who visited the area this summer and spoke to monks told ICT that this was a deeply provocative act: “It seems that most of the local population knew about this petition being circulated by officials, and it caused an increase in tension and anxiety, because Tibetans in this area revere His Holiness.”
“If you are with the Chinese government, there should not be space for Dalai Lama in your heart”
Since the incident, it has become increasingly dangerous for Tibetans to speak about the situation due to increased security in the area and the authorities’ attempts to prevent news about the unrest reaching the outside world. Telephone calls to and from Lithang have been subject to extra monitoring during the past few weeks, and Tibetans are being threatened with repercussions if they speak about the incident and the detentions to anyone.
A Tibetan from the area who is now in exile told ICT: “Officials in Lithang have been showing footage [during political education sessions] that supposedly demonstrates the brutality of the Tibetan social system before the Chinese liberated Tibetans from the chains of the ‘feudal masters’. The conclusion that is meant to be drawn from these programs is that the current prosperity Tibetans enjoy is solely because Tibetans are liberated from the feudal and brutal old system by the Communist government. If the liberation had not occurred, Tibetans would be still suffering and backward as before. They have also shown some photos of well known prisoners like Tulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche saying if Tibetans continue to express dissent, they will be jailed just like him and other prisoners.”
The same source continued: “They tell us that if you are with the Chinese government than there should not be space for Dalai Lama in your heart. These campaigns are aimed at changing peoples’ minds, and when they can’t coerce people into submission they just arrest them. It is supposed to go on till they get a clear answer from the public on the proposed choice – the Party or the Dalai Lama. The people of Lithang are facing a difficult dilemma and are under increasing pressure and restriction. I personally believe that the situation might escalate and become very serious.”
Despite the atmosphere of oppression, Tibetans appear to have been determined to express their views peacefully and without using violence. The same source told ICT: “The courage of Tibetans inside Tibet should never be forgotten and the will and determination in Tibetan people’s hearts should not diminish. As per Runggye Adak’s wish, we should resort to peaceful and non-violent ways to improve the relationship between Tibetans and Chinese so that Tibetans in exile and in Tibet will see the day of reunion soon. That way, Tibetans in Tibet will have the opportunity to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama.”
Climate of fear in Kardze monastery after official clampdown
The same hardline and confrontational strategies have been adopted with monks and local people in another important monastery, Kardze monastery in Kardze county, north of Lithang and also in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. In early June, an official ‘work team’ arrived at the monastery and warned monks that images of the Dalai Lama were not allowed to be displayed in monks’ rooms, and that if any monks were reported to be engaging in ‘splittist activities’, the monastery would be closed down.
While the monks were ordered to gather and sit in the main courtyard, a number of officials searched the premises and confiscated some photographs of the Dalai Lama. Before the team left the monastery, monks were instructed on respecting the laws of the country and given a copy of regulations for religious practice that were published in 2004 in a booklet titled ‘Regulations concerning religious affairs’.
During the Lithang Horse Festival, a fortnight before Runggye Adak made his protest in August, the wording ‘Complete independence’ (Tibetan: Rang Btsan Gtsang Ma’) was written on the entrance gate to the horse race festival area. Following this incident, several hundred soldiers and police apparently arrived in Kardze town, and a large number of them stayed at Kardze monastery, in what appears to be an intimidatory measure. Scribbling Tibetan pro-independence or pro-Dalai Lama graffiti can lead to imprisonment and torture; four Tibetan schoolboys are currently in custody in a Tibetan area of Gansu province, for being suspected of the same offence in an incident in early September (see ICT report, Schoolboys blamed for Tibet graffiti still held incommunicado after beatings). The military personnel took over hotels and guest-houses in the town, requiring all other guests to leave. They stayed in Kardze for around 10 days.
According to information obtained by ICT, at present, monks at Kardze are subject to even more rigorous checks and psychological pressure than normal. Police regularly search their rooms for pictures of the Dalai Lama or the Panchen Lama (Gendun Choekyi Nyima, who has been in Chinese custody since 1995). According to the same report, the monks experience almost constant tension and anxiety, and are frequently fearful that they may be imprisoned if they say something wrong at the wrong time.
In 2006, the Public Security Bureau opened an office in the monastery staffed by a Chinese director and four Tibetan officials. The officials make enquiries as to monks’ whereabouts, monitor what monks read and write, and check the backgrounds of monks who apply to join the monastery. This is done systematically through a registration form specifically designed for visiting monks. In filling in the registration form, the monks are requested to provide full and detailed information about their origins and family, as well as giving facts about their home monastery, major teachers, and the reasons for their visit.
Dalai Lama loyalty expressed at local festivals
Both instances of dissent described in this report – Runggye Adak’s protest, and the pro-independence wording on the entrance gate – occurred during the Lithang Horse Festival, which is one of the major summer festivals in Tibet, attracting many international tourists as well as Tibetan local people and Chinese visitors. In recent years the Chinese authorities have used these festivals as a showcase for the presentation of ‘exotic’ Tibetan traditional culture, as part of a process by the Chinese government in Tibet of appropriating traditional culture and commercializing it.
This has included encouraging – or requiring – Tibetans to adorn themselves with expensive furs such as robes made of pelts from endangered animals such as tigers or leopards. But following a proclamation from the Dalai Lama condemning the wearing of animal furs, many Tibetans in the area have pointedly stopped wearing such adornments. In many areas, there has been the burning of wild animal pelts often worth thousands of yuan – often the equivalent to Tibetans of Westerners burning their cars or houses. (ICT report, Tibetans burn wild animal skins in Tibet to encourage wildlife preservation)
A Tibetan source who traveled in the area in summer said: “I have seen pictures and video of the Lithang festival before His Holiness made the comments about wearing furs [in January 2006], and so many Tibetans were wearing fur.”
The same observer who witnessed Runggye Adak’s protest confirmed to ICT that he saw “virtually no one” wearing wild animal pelts, despite official encouragement for them to do so.
In some cases, officials have threatened not to pay performers if they didn’t wear wild animal pelts. At one festival, the ‘Kampa Arts Festival’ in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, most or all of the performers were wearing fur and skins, mainly otter, leopard and tiger. According to a blog written by a Tibetan writer in Chinese: “Photographers from the mainland pressed forward when people with more fur adornments appeared, as though they wanted to say that this was indeed Tibetan culture, and that showing off so much fur was an indication of Tibetan people’s wealth. I asked a young child who was performing why he was wearing furs: ‘It’s a political duty. If we don’t wear fur it’s a political crime.’”
The same website also reported that officials who didn’t wear fur could be sacked, that herders and peasants who were performing could be docked their 50 yuan ($6) a day for the period of rehearsal for not wearing fur, and others said they could be fined for not wearing fur. The writer commented: “Obviously wearing fur has become an expression of one’s political standpoint, and the high officials on their platform were watching to see which people from which parts of Tibet had ‘political consciousness’. But the people watching the performances were wearing considerably less fur than in previous years; many wore colorful cotton where once they wore fur trim.” (Woeser: Middle Way)
The same writer said: “It’s worth pointing out that at the closing ceremony [of the Festival], when all of the performers were once again walking around the performance area, I heard a loud voice from within the crowd shout ‘Leopard skins and tiger fur is shameful!’ Even three Tibetan officials on duty were brave enough to say that the Dalai Lama’s call was because he loves the people and treasures the environment.”
The Chinese writer Wang Lixiong has also commented about the issue on a website, saying that the reason why more and more people were wearing fur – prompting the Dalai Lama to call on people to stop – is that the Chinese government is attempting to attract investment by popularizing images of Khampas wearing wild animal pelts at these festivals. Tibetans are an extremely compassionate people for whom killing wild animals is taboo, Wang wrote on April 20, and governments should realize when they put culture on an economic ‘stage’ that culture becomes corrupted.
The Tibetan visitor to Lithang and Kardze, who traveled widely through the region and is now in the U.S, said: “Tibetans in Kardze and throughout eastern Tibet long and pray to see His Holiness back in Tibet. Not wearing wild animal pelts at the festivals despite official encouragement to do so is one way of expressing that devotion. One Tibetan living in a very Sinicized area of Sichuan close to Chengdu had the courage to confide in me, with tears in his eyes, that he and every Tibetan prayed for one thing deep in their hearts, and that was to see His Holiness. Almost every Tibetan, rich, poor, educated, illiterate, well-known or not, shared this sentiment. I think the Chinese government is trying to project an image of economic progress in Tibet and saying that Tibetans do not want the Dalai Lama to return as he represents the old ways, and is against modernization. I talked to a few Chinese who believe this strongly and think that Tibetans in Tibet are losing faith in the Dalai Lama. It is not true.”