DHARAMSALA, India—Authorities in a Tibetan region of China’s southwestern Sichuan province have ordered a build-up of security forces in the region and canceled an annual horse-racing festival that was marked by protests a year ago, according to residents and exiled Tibetans from the area.
“There is a huge Chinese military force in Lithang,” one Tibetan resident said. “They are intimidating local Tibetans by conducting firing drills and other military exercises.”
“The sounds of explosions and firing of weapons can be heard loudly in the Lithang area,” he said, adding that the noise had frightened away birds, making it impossible to conduct traditional “sky burials” in which carrion birds carry off the bodies of the dead.
“The noise from the firing drills and explosions is so intense and loud that no birds are flying in the area,” he said.
Numerous exiled Tibetans with relatives in Lithang [in Chinese, Litang] confirmed a build-up of security forces around the town and its monasteries.
“I haven’t been able to contact my hometown for quite some time,” Amdruk Tseten, a Lithang native now living in India, said. “Today, I got through. Starting from July 5, Chinese security forces have been deployed in different places.”
The noise from the firing drills and explosions is so intense and loud that no birds are flying in the area."
“They have warned that no-one is allowed to move around or go to Lithang town and its monasteries for three days. If anyone goes, the local authorities have warned that the Chinese security forces are authorized to shoot,” he added.
He said Tibetan residents of neighboring counties, including Nyakchuka [in Chinese, Yajiang] county, were banned from Lithang town.
“The Lithang International Horse-Racing Festival is also banned this year,” he said. “Additional troops have been sent to the area, and many Chinese soldiers are disguising the number of troops by putting on Tibetan dress.”
Lithang is home to a high proportion of Tibetans, especially nomads. The town saw a mass protest during a horse-racing festival in mid-August last year, and the area has a long history of chafing under Chinese rule.
The standoff began during a festival ceremony Aug. 1, 2007 after police detained Yonru nomad Ronggyal Adrak for whipping up the crowd to shout in support of the Dalai Lama.
Nomads issued three specific demands, including the release of Ronggyal Adrak, who was later jailed for “splitting the country,” religious freedom including the right to hear teachings by the Dalai Lama, and the release of revered Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, among other prisoners.
They withdrew only after Tibetan leaders begged them to do so, vowing to restart their protests if the demands weren’t met. The authorities promptly launched a “patriotic re-education” campaign and posted Tibetan officials away from the area.
Tenzin Dorjee, a Tibetan monk from Lithang now living in southern India’s Drepung monastery, said the restrictions were being imposed for fear of similar incidents this August.
“This year, the Chinese authorities have ordered local people not to organize a horse racing festival,” he said. “Tibetans in Lithang are also now seeing a build-up of Chinese troops.”
“They are deployed in different areas in Lithang. A contingent of more than 600 Chinese soldiers is stationed very close to the monastery of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche in Nyakchuka county. The Chinese army camp is only two miles from the monastery,” he said.
Calls to government and police departments in Lithang went unconnected during office hours this week.
The Chinese authorities have launched a concerted “patriotic education” campaign among Tibetans aimed at diminishing support for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Beijing blames the Dalai Lama for violence that erupted in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, on March 14 following several days of peaceful protests.
Beijing says that 22 people were killed in rioting, which spread rapidly from Lhasa to other Tibetan areas of western China. Tibetan sources say scores of people were killed when Chinese paramilitary and police opened fire on crowds of unarmed demonstrators.
Chinese authorities have blamed the Dalai Lama for instigating the protests and fomenting a Tibetan independence movement. The Dalai Lama rejects the accusation, saying he wants only autonomy and human rights for Tibetans.
Original reporting by Lobsang Chophel for RFA’s Tibetan service. Director: Jigme Ngapo. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.