HONG KONG—Tibetans traveling to a protest site in China’s southwestern Sichuan province have been blocked on the road by Chinese security forces and threatened with a “violent crackdown” unless they disperse, according to sources in the region.
“The Chinese authorities have deployed a huge contingent of armed security forces who are blocking the Tibetans moving toward the Nyakchukha [in Chinese, Yajiang] county center,” a Tibetan in nearby Lithang county said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lithang is populated largely by Tibet nomads and has in the past been a flashpoint for protests in opposition to Chinese rule.
The Tibetans, whom the source described as having come from Lithang and other Tibetan-populated areas nearby, had sought to join protests calling for the release of Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a popular Tibetan community leader serving a life sentence for his alleged role in a series of bombings.
“Those Tibetans who gathered from different areas to rally behind the Tibetans in Nyakchukha were warned through loudspeakers to go back to their own areas by 3 p.m. on Dec. 9. They were threatened with a violent crackdown if they did not return,” the source added.
“At present, no one is being allowed to go to Nyakchukha,” the source said.
Between 500 and 600 Tibetans from the Golok and Othok areas of Nyakchukha who were detained during protests beginning Dec. 5 are being held by Chinese forces “at a place called Yishin,” the source said.
Another group, who had traveled to Sichuan’s provincial capital of Chengdu to call for Tenzin Delek Rinpoche’s release, had been brought back to Nyakchukha and are also being held, he said.
Reached for comment, Nyakchukha county police and local government offices would neither confirm nor deny reports of the event.
An official at the county Religious Affairs Bureau hung up when asked whether Tibetans had gone to the county center to protest.
A Tibetan living in India who cited contacts in the region described the Nyakchukha county center as being “under curfew,” with all shops and other businesses closed.
“Tourists in local hotels were forced out and escorted away,” the source said.
“The Tibetans who had earlier rallied for the release of [Tenzin Delek] Rinpoche are facing shortages of food and water, so some local Tibetans have been helping them with supplies.”
“I was also told that the Chinese authorities sent a fire rescue team with water tanks to clean away the blood, hair, and clothes left behind when Tibetan protesters were beaten,” he said.
Determined to stay
Many of the Tibetans now surrounded by Chinese security forces on the road to Nyakchukha are “old Tibetans in their 50s and 60s who want to see Tenzin Delek Rinpoche,” a local Tibetan said, also on condition that he not be named.
“They have expressed their determination to stay and insist on his release,” he said.
“They argued that in Rinpoche’s absence, there is no one with the moral stature to resolve the growing number of local conflicts over grassland and other issues. They said that there is no reason for Chinese authorities to fire on them, as they are not against China, have not broken the country’s laws, and have not promoted separatist activities.”
The Tibetans already detained have begun a hunger strike, and “thousands” could now be sitting on the road in protest, he said.
Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, jailed since December 2002 on bombing charges many believe to have been trumped up by Chinese authorities, is “really considered a community leader” by Tibetans living in Sichuan, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University.
“He helped them stand up to the exploitation of their community by mining and forestry,” he said.
Barnett described the protests calling for Tenzin Delek’s release “terribly important, because it’s a classic model of civic protest.”
“And civic protest is always going to be the kind of thing that’s hardest to argue away by the authorities,” he said.
“For the state, it might pose something of a problem if they overreact.”
Reported by Lobsang Choephel and Dhondup Dorjee for RFA’s Tibetan service, Qiao Long for RFA’s Mandarin service, and Hai Lan for RFA’s Cantonese service. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translations by Karma Dorjee and Jia Yuan. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.