WASHINGTON, August 10: Tibetan nomads protesting outside government offices in the Sichuan town of Lithang have withdrawn after local Tibetan leaders begged them to leave or face a violent crackdown from the thousands of armed police stationed in the area, local sources said.
Wednesday's 8.00 a.m. deadline passed without incident, but local officials continued to put pressure on the hundreds of nomads encamped in Lithang to leave quietly. The protesters were demanding the release of one of their number who called publicly for the return of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Protesters had issued three specific demands of authorities in China's southwestern Sichuan Province, including the release of Ronggyal Adrak, religious freedom and the right to hear teachings from the Dalai Lama, and the release of revered Tibetan monk Tenzin Delek Rinpoche as well as all other prisoners.
"Last time, the Tibetan protesters in Lithang were told to leave by 8.00 am on August 8, 2007 or face a ruthless crackdown," a source in the town told RFA's Tibetan service.
"The protesters persisted in their protests and refused to move. At that time a group of high officials--mainly Tibetans--came towards the protesting Tibetans and told them, 'There is an imminent danger of violent crackdown on you'."
"They promised to take care of their demands and try their best to release Rungyal Adrak...This assurance was given mainly by the Tibetan leaders including Sonam la, head of the Lithang county government," the source said, adding that the leaders had begged the nomads to leave with hands folded in supplication.
Thousands of police
"The protesters promised to withdraw their protest temporarily and watch. However they would observe how their demands were resolved, and if their demands were not fulfilled to their satisfaction, they would resume protests which could go on for a long time," the Lithang resident said.
"Then they started withdrawing around 12 noon and completed by 2.00 p.m.”
Following the incident at a picnic during the horse-racing festival Aug. 1, local authorities had imposed restrictions on the movements of all Tibetans in the area and drafted around 5,000 armed police or People's Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers into the region, residents told RFA at the time.
But other sources said Rongyal Adrak was very unlikely to be released.
Representatives of the Tibetan nomads had met with top provincial officials, as well as leaders from Karze prefecture and Lithang county. During that meeting, they were told that the "crimes" committed by Rongyal Adrak were "extremely severe", citing in particular his call of "Long live the Dalai Lama!" in front of a crowd of several thousand people.
According to one caller from Lithang, the officials told the Tibetans: "His action was totally against the constitution of China. Even if he has such thoughts he should not even share such thoughts with his close friends."
"If you support him, you could also be implicated in the crime he committed. So it would be better if you were all to back down," the caller quoted officials as saying.
Crowds gathered for horse racing
The protest escalated during a festival ceremony Aug. 1 after police detained Yonru nomad Rongyal Adrak for whipping up the crowd to shout in support of the Dalai Lama.
He raised his protest at a traditional picnic on the same day that China marks the founding of the PLA.
Aug. 1-15 also marks a fortnight of horse-racing and other celebrations among Tibetans, when the local weather is favorable.
Local Chinese security officials have confirmed the incident took place, saying the situation was under control, but declined to give further details.
China regularly sentences Tibetans to jail terms for "splitting the motherland" simply for possessing portraits, writings or recordings of the Dalai Lama, who fled the region after a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. China has said he will play no role in Tibet's future.
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 is a major event in the region, which has drawn up to 50,000 participants and spectators from all over China in previous years.
China's People's Liberation Army troops marched into Tibet in 1951. The Dalai Lama has accused Beijing of implementing policies of "cultural genocide" against the region and its Buddhist heritage.
Original reporting in Kham by Lobsang Choepel and Dorjee Damdul for RFA's Tibetan service. Translated by Benpa Topgyal. Service director: Jigme Ngapo. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Karma Dorjee and Dan Southerland.