Tibetan Horse Race Canceled After Violence


2006.08.09
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August 7, 2005: A Tibetan horseman holds onto his horse at high speed during a test of riding skills in Tsara township, 70 km from Tibet's capital Lhasa. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON—A crowd of Tibetan nomads has ransacked a local police station in a traditionally Tibetan area of Sichuan province, China, after a dispute over the result of a major annual horse race, according to witnesses.

This year when the main horse race took place on Aug. 3, there were no disputes regarding the first- and second-place winners. Third place was actually won by a local nomadic horse racer, but the [Lithang county] authorities declared a horse owned by a government official as third-place winner.

Sources told RFA’s Tibetan service that the annual Lithang (in Chinese, Litang) Horse Race Festival, which was scheduled to run from Aug.1-7 and drew tens of thousands of spectators, was cut short because of clashes over who won third place.

“This year when the main horse race took place on Aug. 3, there were no disputes regarding the first- and second-place winners,” one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Third place was actually won by a local nomadic horse racer, but the [Lithang county] authorities declared a horse owned by a government official as third-place winner.” All the contestants were Tibetan.

The Tibetan nomads were enraged, and the father of the Tibetan horseman who they believed was the rightful winner went to complain at the Lithang police station, where he was beaten by police, sources said. Three other men were also beaten, witnesses said. All four refused to seek medical attention and instead commandeered a stage at the horse festival that was to be used for a cultural performance, they said.

Police station ransacked

Angry over the beating and the disputed result, several hundred Tibetan nomads went to the police station and ransacked it on Aug. 4, after which county authorities canceled the rest of the Lithang festival, the sources said. During the scuffle, police fired warning shots into the air and the Tibetans responded by pelting them with stones, witnesses said.

Ultimately, according to a source who asked not to be named, the owner of the horse that was declared the third-place winner “went to the family of the man whose horse should have won and confessed that it was a mistake. He offered them 500 yuan and apologized for the mistake.”

Lithang police, contacted by telephone, declined to comment on the incident.

A huge annual event

The festival is a major event in the region and has drawn up to 50,000 participants and spectators from all over China in previous years.

“Thousands of Tibetans attended from other Tibetan areas, mainly in the Kham area,” one Tibetan source said. “More than 1,000 colorful tents had been pitched, and there were activities and dances… The main event was the horse race of course. Khampa horsemen compete in different skills, such as picking up scarves from the ground while running in full gallop, firing at targets while racing on horseback.”

At 4,000 meters above sea level, Lithang is one of the highest human settlements on Earth. It is home to the 16th-century Lithang Monastery, now rebuilt after being bombed in the 1950s.

Original reporting by Lobsang Choephel for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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