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Pictures From Tibet That Tell a Story of Courage

October 3, 2010

Kate Saunders
The Huffington Post
September 28, 2010

Sometimes an image stops you in your tracks.
That's what happened to me the other day, as two
pictures snapped in remote Tibet -- by a
photographer who had no idea what he was observing -- arrived in my inbox.

The images depict a man in the still center of a
crowd whose arm has been grabbed so hard by a
tough-looking guy in white that his
diamond-patterned jumper has been yanked off his
shoulder. A monk with a black parasol over his
shoulder stands by his side, as if to protect him.

It is an electric scene. Intense emotion, though
restrained, is visible in the faces of everyone
present. There's a young girl, with a long black
ponytail gathered up in a yellow scrunch,
reaching for the hand of her mother, who stands
motionless, and little boys in hoodies whose
faces betray their vulnerability. The shadows of
clouds sweep across the landscape, dappling the
grasslands, while directly behind the crowd, two
red flags flutter above a Tibetan marquee.

The photographer has unwittingly captured the
moment when a Tibetan nomad, Runggye Adak, was
arrested for calling for the exiled Tibetan
leader, the Dalai Lama, to be allowed to return
home. It happened at a horse festival in Lithang,
eastern Tibet, on August 1, 2007.

During the opening ceremony, 56-year old Runggye
Adak, a respected senior of the nomadic
community, strode onstage -- an unexpected
presence among Chinese military guests and
dignitaries in attendance. He took the microphone
and gravely spoke about Tibetans' loyalty to the
Dalai Lama and their inability given their
circumstances to express what they really feel.
These two compelling images capture the moments
after he stepped down from the stage and was seized by plain-clothes security.

Runggye Adak was sentenced to eight years in
prison, which he is serving in Mianyang in Sichuan.

Footage of Runggye Adak's statement -- recently
made public here -- could not be a more vivid
depiction of how a perfectly civil expression of
a point of view can be judged by the Chinese
authorities as a "crime" that can endanger the
security of the state. Unknowingly, his actions
that day at the Lithang horse festival were a
precursor to a wave of protests against Chinese
government policy and in support of the Dalai
Lama that swept across Tibet, transforming the
political landscape in Tibet. Today, there are
untold numbers of Tibetans in prison for saying,
as Runggye Adak did, that they cannot say what is
in their hearts, and calling for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to come home.

In a clip of the footage obtained by the
International Campaign for Tibet of Runggye Adak's statement, he is saying:

...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].

An eyewitness said: "He was very calm, very
dignified and he spoke clearly. Tibetans around
me were shaking their heads in sadness, because
they were fearful for him, and others were openly agreeing with him."

In daring to publicly refute China's
representations of the situation in Tibet,
Runggye Adak and a new generation of young
Tibetans represent a much more complex challenge
to the ruling Chinese Communist Party than
before. Their actions are grounded in a renewed
sense of solidarity and pride in their Tibetan identity.

Like so many others who have voiced their views,
Runggye Adak, a senior figure in his local
community and father of 11 children, must have
known what awaited him. For expressing their
loyalty to the Dalai Lama or criticizing Chinese
policies, Tibetans face torture and isolation in
prison; some do not survive imprisonment.

Here in these images there is the hand on the
shoulder, rather than the knock on the door in
the middle of the night. In one of the pictures,
Runggye Adak is looking directly at the
tough-looking guy in the white shirt (his black
armband on his upper right sleeve indicates that
he could be a citizen monitor of some sort who
helps to maintain public order), who is perhaps
translating for a Chinese plain clothes security
official. A Tibetan policeman, cap askew, has a
hand on the shoulder of the tough guy in the white shirt as if to restrain him.

In the first image, Runggye Adak is pictured
looking down at the ground, leaning towards a
maroon-robed monk, his bearing still dignified,
before he is taken away. With the backdrop of the
red flags of the Chinese Communist Party,
symbolic of state dominance in Tibet today, it is
a scene of almost Biblical intensity -- reality
as if captured in a painting by a Renaissance master.

* Kate Saunders is Communications Director for
the International Campaign for Tibet
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