It could be argued that the Tibetan uprising of 2008 actually began several months earlier with what appeared to be an impromptu public address by a middle-aged Tibetan nomad. Until now, no one had seen footage of his defiant speech that was released this week for the first time by Tibet rights groups.
On August 1st 2007, thousands of Tibetans were attending the famous summer horse festival in Lithang County in the Tibetan region of Kham (Ch. Sichuan province). The horses are more like ponies, but the skill of their riders is impressive. At full gallop, the Khampa horsemen lean precariously sideways off the saddle, flop to the ground with arms dragging in the dust behind them and unprotected heads inches from the earth, and somehow manage to regain an upright position.
Banned during the Cultural Revolution, the festival has since been co-opted by Chinese authorities to celebrate the founding of the People's Liberation Army, the military arm of the Chinese government and the largest military force in the world. The year 2007 marked the PLA's 80th anniversary. It was a big deal in China, observed with glitzy musical stage productions re-enacting highlights of the army's history (minus 1989 Tiananmen) and rousing political speeches promoting its "glorious achievements." Snazzy new uniforms had even been specially tailored to mark the occasion.
But this atmosphere of Chinese nationalistic ferver was about to be roundly disturbed at the Lithang horse festival by a 53-year-old nomad from rural Tibet. His name was Runngye Adak, and just before the official function began, he jumped up on stage and grabbed the microphone. Addressing the audience, he coolly but firmly voiced a number of grievances that were all articulated later in the protests that broke out the following Spring in Lhasa, and which spread across the entire Tibetan plateau.
A Western filmmaker, who requested anonymity, captured part of Adak's speech on video. Not knowing the language, he had no idea as to the significance of what he was filming. The tape was overlooked for years, but the footage has now been made public (with English subtitles) by Tibet support organizations to coincide with the third anniversary of the event. View footage here.
"...These things have happened to us; did you hear what has happened to us? Although we can move our bodies, we cannot express what is in our hearts. You know? These days there are those who say we don't need the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama is the one that we six million Tibetans truly [need]"
According to eye witnesses, Adak, cutting a striking figure in a white cowboy hat and traditional chupa slung over his shoulder, called for the release of political prisoners such as Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the Dalai Lama's candidate for Panchen Lama, and Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a highly respected monk and community leader, who is currently serving a life sentence on the dubious charge of "conspiring to cause explosions". Witnesses report Adak also saying that the Dalai Lama should return to Tibet. It seems that the nomad had taken the security personnel by surprise and was able to complete his address to roars of approval from the crowd before he was arrested by armed police.
China's Communist Party mouthpiece, Xinhua, said that hundreds of Tibetans gathered outside the local jail to demand Runggye Adak's release. The Associated Press later reported that scores of people were arrested in the aftermath.
Runggye Adak, known as a respected local figure and father of eleven, was charged with "provocation to subvert state power," and was indicted by the Kardze Intermediate People's Court on four counts ranging from disruption of law and order to state subversion. He was subsequently sentenced to eight years imprisonment with deprivation of political rights for four years. According to Radio Free Asia, during the trial, the judge stated that by calling for the Dalai Lama's return, Adak had "committed the crime of subverting the People's Republic of China."
In response, Runggye Adak told the court, "I wanted to raise Tibetan concerns and grievances, as there is no outlet for us to do so." He went on to say there is no one in Tibet who does not have faith in, loyalty to or the heartfelt wish to see the return of the Dalai Lama. He countered "propaganda" by the Chinese authorities that Tibetans have lost faith in the Dalai Lama, saying: "That is wrong, but we have no freedom to say so."
Adak's nephew, Adak Lopoe, was given ten years, and an art and music teacher named Kunkhyen was given nine years, both for crimes of endangering national security--in other words, for trying to inform the outside world about Adak's protest.
Runngye Adak's actions were labeled a "major political incident" by China's central government, but to Tibetans he became an instant hero. For a few minutes, an uncensored voice had been heard that mirrored their secret dreams and burning resentments.
The nomad's plea inspired renewed resistance to China's control in Lithang, which resulted in the harshest crackdown the region had seen in decades. A rigorous smear campaign against the Dalai Lama met with dismal failure, and was further hindered two months later by the conferring of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal on the Dalai Lama by President George W. Bush, which Tibetans celebrated as a personal victory.
Said President of the International Campaign for Tibet, Mary Beth Markey, "Criminalizing devotion to the Dalai Lama has been the undoing of their [Chinese authorities] efforts to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans and certainly contributed to the anger that erupted in March 2008."
According to the International Tibet Support Network, a global coalition of Tibet support organizations, Runggye Adak's family has only been able to visit him once in the past three years and there are currently fears for his health. He is serving out his sentence in Mianyang Prison, Sichuan Province, the same prison as Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, the monk whose release he had called for in his courageous stand for freedom.