Authorities in China’s southwestern Sichuan province have detained a popular Tibetan comedian ahead of his plan to release a video criticizing Chinese rule in Tibetan-populated regions, which has been a key theme of recent Tibetan protests, according to exile sources.
Athar, 33, who runs a general store aside from giving satirical performances in Lithang county in the Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, was taken into custody at night in early February by a special Chinese police team acting on orders from the top, sources said.
The detention came amid tensions in Tibetan-populated areas in Chinese provinces on the back of self-immolations and protests against Chinese rule that have led to a security clampdown and the detention of hundreds of Tibetans.
“Two weeks ago, many Chinese police wearing black head gear came to his shop in the evening,” said India-based Tibetan exile parliament member Andrug Tseten, citing sources in the region.
“They searched his shop and took him away with them in the night,” Tseten said.
Athar’s relatives who went to the county police to enquire about his situation were told that the performer had been taken by police belonging to a special task force assigned to detain people involved in “serious political matters,” Tseten said.
“County police told Athar's relatives that they got the order from 'higher levels' and that those who detained him were special task force police assigned to arrest people involved in serious political matters. They did not know where Athar was taken.”
Call for unity
A U.S.-based friend who had visited Athar in November said Athar had told him he was about to release a DVD that might lead to his arrest.
Athar, a member of the Yuru Keta Depa family, gave his friend a short recorded message, telling him to pass it on if he should hear he had been detained. It was not immediately clear whether Athar had publicly released the video before his detention.
In a copy of the video message obtained by RFA, Athar warns that Tibet under its present status has gone down a “wrong path,” urges unity among Tibetans, and calls for a strengthened Tibetan national identity and culture.
Message in Tibetan by Athar
"The Tibetan sky, which has a history of more than a thousand years, is [now] shrouded by a thick black cloud,” Athar says.
“Many in the world who are sensible and knowledgeable are shedding tears for us and extending their support.”
“We should cease all those actions that please our enemy and should shoulder our responsibility and foster unity among all three regions of Tibet and all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, protect our culture, and conserve our environment,” Athar said.
“Because of strict restrictions on all lines of communication in Sichuan, it is impossible to call the [Lithang] area to find out what has happened to Athar,” the comedian’s U.S.-based friend said.
“Also, large numbers of Chinese forces are deployed in Lithang these days,” he added.
Athar’s case follows the detention of two other Tibetan cultural figures this month.
About a week ago, popular Tibetan writer Gangkye Drubpa Kyab, 33, was taken into custody in Serthar (in Chinese, Seda) county in Sichuan by special police who raided his home late at night.
Two weeks earlier, Dawa Dorje, a popular advocate of Tibet’s traditional culture and language in his 20’s, was detained by Chinese authorities as he returned to the Tibet Autonomous Region after organizing a conference promoting Tibetan culture in Sichuan.
Sichuan has been the focus of Tibetan protests against Chinese rule and a series of Tibetan self-immolations that have led to a beefed-up Chinese security presence.
Last month, Chinese police opened fire on Tibetan protesters in at least three counties in Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, wounding scores and killing at least six, according to right groups.
Twenty-three Tibetans have self-immolated to protest Chinese policies and rule in Tibetan regions since February 2009.
Chinese authorities have labeled the self-immolators as terrorists and blamed the Dalai Lama for the tense situation, saying he is encouraging the fiery protests which, they say, run contrary to Buddhist teachings.
But the Dalai Lama has blamed China's "ruthless and illogical" policy toward Tibet.
Reported by Rigdhen Dolma for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee and Rigdhen Dolma. Written in English by Richard Finney.