KATHMANDU—A protest by Tibetan nomads in the southwestern province of Sichuan against China's policy regarding their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, has escalated into a stand-off between hundreds of local residents calling for the release of those detained, and 2,000 police and military personnel, local residents said.
"When more than 5,000 Tibetans were gathered at Lithang police station waiting for the release of Rongyal Adrak, more than 2,000 Chinese police and army moved into the area," a Tibetan resident of Lithang (in Chinese, Litang) county, Karze prefecture, told RFA's Tibetan service.
Rongyal Adrak, of the Yonru nomadic group, was detained by police at a festival in Lithang on Aug. 1 after he called on Beijing to allow the Dalai Lama back into Tibetan territory under Chinese control.
Nomads and local residents besieged Lithang town calling for his release, and a 200-strong delegation was sent to talk to Chinese officials.
"When the 200 Tibetans went inside the police station, the main gate was closed behind them," a local source said. "The police demanded four persons who should speak for the Tibetans. These four were taken inside the police station."
If we cannot invite the Dalai Lama home, we will not have freedom of religion and happiness in Tibet.
The delegation, which had forsworn any form of violence even it it was used against them, told police they had come not just to demand Rongyal Adrak's release, but also human rights, religious freedom and freedom of speech for all Tibetans, the local resident said.
"The police officer demanded that the crowd of protesters move back, otherwise they would shoot and kill all of the 200 Tibetans inside the compound," he added.
The standoff eased, however, and all the 200 Tibetans were allowed to leave the police station unharmed.
Earlier, local sources told RFA what Rongyal Adrak did at the festival.
“Rongyal Adrak is generally a religious and good person, but because he was frustrated at being unable to meet the Dalai Lama...he shouted in the midst of all the people that the Dalai Lama must be invited home,” a local source said.
“[He said,] ‘If we cannot invite the Dalai Lama home, we will not have freedom of religion and happiness in Tibet.’”
“He raised a protest and then others joined him” at a traditional picnic Aug. 1, the day Chinese citizens celebrate the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, the source said. Aug. 1-15 also marks a fortnight of horse-racing and other celebrations among Tibetans, when the local weather is ideal.
“About 20 persons, young and old, belonging to the Yonru group are now behind bars. Then others from outside the jail also raised a protest."
Protesters vowed Friday not to give up their campaign for Rongyal Adrak's release.
"The Tibetans protesters have not withdrawn but they camped outside Lithang town in tents," a source in the town said.
"It is not clear whether Rongyal Adrak is detained in Lithang or some other place within the Lithang county jurisdiction. Nobody can say for sure," the source added.
Another source who witnessed the protest said Rongyal Adrak had thrown a khatak , or ceremonial white scarf, into the crowd before “snatching the microphone from the Chinese [official] on the ceremony platform and asking, ‘Should the Dalai Lama return home or not ?’”
“The crowd yelled ‘yes,’” the witness said. “He then asked, ‘Should the Panchen Lama be released ?’ Everyone responded, ‘Yes.’”
“Then the Chinese official snatched the microphone back, and a monk from the local monastery who had earlier called the Dalai Lama a ‘splittist’ was verbally attacked by the crowd,” the source said.
Local Chinese security officials, contacted by telephone, reported that the incident had been brought under control, but they declined to comment further.
Sources in the area reported hearing gunshots near the local jail, but they said no one appeared to have been injured.
"What Rongyal Adrak was expressing and feeling is shared by all Tibetans young and old," one Tibetan source in the region said. He added that a signatures in a campaign by local Chinese officials testifying that local monks did not want the Dalai Lama back had been forced out of local monks.
He said local officials were concerned at the speed of reporting of such incidents in highly sensitive Tibetan areas.
"The officials responded that Rongyal Adrak committed 113 political crimes; that he committed crimes to split nationalities and subvert state power. They suspect that he was incited and instigated by foreign forces particularly from United States. The speed and the detailed reporting of these incidents in the world indicates that he has the support and backing of foreign forces," the source said.
A year ago, Tibetan nomads ransacked a local police station in Lithang after a dispute over the results in a major annual horse race.
The Lithang Horse Race Festival, which drew tens of thousands of spectators, was cut short because of clashes over who won third place. Four men were beaten by police, according to witnesses, when they tried to complain about cronyism. They refused to seek medical attention and instead commandeered a stage at the festival that was to have been used for a cultural performance.
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.
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 in Kham by Lobsang Choepel for RFA's Tibetan service. Translated by Benpa Topgyal. Service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written for the Web by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Karma Dorjee and Luisetta Mudie