Police in China’s southwestern Sichuan province detained a Tibetan businessman this week after he resisted the takeover of his land by county authorities, sparking a protest in which the man’s wife and another local Tibetan were also detained, according to a Tibetan source in exile.
Sonam Gonpo, 48, was taken into custody on April 10 when he appealed to Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) county authorities to stop building on a piece of land they had earlier marked for construction, a South India-based monk named Pema Tsewang said, citing contacts in the region.
“The authorities refused to listen, and instead a group of policemen suddenly appeared and detained Sonam Gonpo along with his brother-in-law Khedrub,” Tsewang said.
“Following this, authorities tried to take over the land, but more than a hundred local Tibetans, along with family members and relatives, gathered at the site and lay down in front of the bulldozers and land-leveling machines.”
“They declared that as their land is their only source of income, its confiscation would amount to a death sentence against them, and that the Chinese police should therefore just shoot them then and there,” Tsewang said.
Additional police were called in and detained Sonam Gonpo’s wife and a Tibetan named Sangye Kelsang, a resident of Lopa township.
As elsewhere in China, all land in the Tibetan-populated prefectures of China’s western provinces is understood to be held by the state, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at New York’s Columbia University.
“[But] people have use rights—what we in the West would refer to as a lease,” Barnett said.
And before land can be reclaimed by the state, authorities taking the land “have to have certain reasons and justifications, and they have to pay compensation.”
Whether Sonam Gonpo was offered compensation for the land that was taken is still unclear. But the seizure of land without such an offer being made would be “unusual,” Barnett said.
Sonam Gonpo—also originally from Lopa, and whose father’s name is Dorje Tashi and mother’s name was Choedron Dargyal—had been detained three times before, Tsewang said, citing local sources.
On March 19, 2009, he was picked up and held for four months for “spreading rumors,” Tsewang said.
He was severely beaten in custody, and authorities seized an expensive vehicle belonging to him, along with a quantity of the valuable cordyceps fungus often traded in the region.
He was picked up again on March 31, 2011, for organizing a reception for two monks belonging to the Kardze Tsetsang monastery who had recently been released from jail, and was held for a month and then released.
“A few days later, he was detained again, and was locked up for almost a year,” Tsewang said.
Reported by Ugen Tenzin for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.