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Landmark sentencing?

July 2, 2010

TibetInfoNet (TIN)
June 30, 2010
ISSN: 1864-1407

The sentencing of Karma Samdrup on 24 June 2010
is potentially a hard blow for the further
development of the vigorous grassroots social and
ecological activism that has spread over many
parts of Tibetan regions of the People's Republic
of China (PRC) during the last 5-8 years. His
brilliant career, his markedly apolitical
approach to contemporary problems, while
maintaining a specific Tibetan attitude in the
solutions he has proposed and, last but not
least, the authorities' apparent approval of his
activities were for many a source of inspiration
and encouragement. The further handling of his
case is likely to have deep implications for the
nascent civil society within Tibet.

Karma Samdrub was born in May 1968 in Gonjo
(Chin: Gongjue) county, Chamdo (Chin: Qamdo)
prefecture, TAR. He became wealthy through the
trade of dzi stones1, long beads of dark colour
with a glass-like texture, which can be found in
the ground at many places in Tibet. The exact
origins of dzi stones are not known but they are
reputed to be remnants from a pre-Buddhist
civilisation on the Tibetan Plateau and are
believed to have magical properties. Dzi stones
can command very high prices, particularly among
Chinese communities in Taiwan, Hong Kong and
South-east Asia. Due to his business, Karma
Samdrup is also widely known by the nickname
'King of Dzi', although he has also been
instrumental in popularising certain types of Tibetan medicines.

The first known example for Karma Samdrup's
social activism was in 1995 with the
establishment of the Medong Village Primary
School in Zerong township, Gongjue county,
Chamdo, TAR. In 1998, he then set up the first
Tibetan medicine shop in Guangdong province,
south China, where he also established a local
office of the Tibet Development Fund (TDF), an
official NGO originally established by the
Panchen Lama and controlled by TAR leaders or
former leaders. He also supported health
insurance schemes, including direct support for
poor households unable to finance themselves on
their own in various townships of Chamdo
prefecture. He also established the county
Tibetan Medical Hospital of Gonjo and was awarded
the title of 'Model Worker of the TAR', a tile
inherited from China's distant socialist times.

Karma Samdrup's interest in ecological issues
grew more apparent at the beginning of the
millennium and he developed a number of
activities in this regard, including diverse
surveys that involved various Mainland academic
institutes and focused on community environment,
culture, education, health care, folk custom and
transportation, etc. He established bodies
related to ecology, the most important of them
being the Snowland Great Rivers Environmental
Protection Association (SGREPA). Working with
this organisation or associated groups, he
conducted intensive dissemination work on
ecological matters, including an environment
education curriculum called 'Green Cradle'. Aware
of the importance of economic development, he
realised that the key to ecological protection
could only be through sustainable development
backed with income generation schemes and hence
he worked on establishing activities like eco-tourism in the region.

SGREPA enjoyed full accreditation with the
Chinese government and pioneered landmark
ecological work. It appears to have been the
first group to have labelled Tibet's wild
expanses the 'Third Pole', a term borrowed from
geography and paleo-climatology2. It also was
instrumental in eradicating the use of wildlife
pelts on the Tibetan Plateau. SGREPA introduced
the idea of involving high Tibetan lamas in
campaigns against the use of pelts. Although
successful, these operations had only a momentary
impact on the problem and it was only when the
Dalai Lama threw his weight into the anti-fur
campaigns in early 2006 that these overnight
became some of the most successful ecological
campaigns ever. Neither SGREPA nor Karma Samdup
personally were involved in the fur burnings, as
both he personally and the group always stayed
away from anything that could be labelled 'political'.

Although his nature protection efforts brought
him particular fame and at times eclipsed his
other activities, Karma Samdrup remained
committed to his other concerns for social issues
and the preservation and development of Tibetan
culture. From 2006 onwards, he started working on
a project to research and develop Tibetan
culture. His latest venture before his arrest was
the establishment of an ambitious museum of
Tibetan culture, in partnership with the United
Front Department, the organ of the Communist
Party of China (CPC) that deals with religious and ethnic minorities.

For his ecological work in particular, Karma
Samdrup became well known and he received several
national and international awards. He was
featured in many press and TV reports within the
PRC and a book was written about his life,
lauding his successes. However, this success also
created enemies, mainly among those whose
profitable activities had been curtailed by his
environmental protection activities. His ability
to attract funding into rural regions, far beyond
the scale available to local party leaders, also
raised profound antipathy among local leaders
notorious for their territoriality. Similar
issues of perceived rivalries have played
important roles in the processes that have led to
the downfall of other charismatic Tibetans in
eastern regions like Khenpo Jigme Phuntsog and
Tenzin Deleg Rinpoche. The book written about
Karma Samdrup was first published in Hong Kong
and a PRC version of it appeared in late 2009.
Probably because the book featured his success
and highlighted the wrongdoings of others, it is
said to have attracted some controversy. That
this arose at about the same time that his two
brothers became embroiled in disputes with local
leaders in connection with the implementation of
environmental protection laws, did not help. In
the absence of any known accusation of political
wrongdoings, the reasons for Karma Samdrup's arrest appear to originate here.

However, the development of the case raises a
number of questions. According to reports, Karma
Samdrup was arrested in Sichuan and immediately
taken to Xinjiang where long dismissed
allegations of tomb robbery and dealing in looted
relics resurfaced. The harsh procedures and
presumption of guilt these charges imply are
unsurprising in the context of the pre-modern
type of judicial practice that still prevails in
the PRC, but the scope of the case and the high
level of organisation and coordination needed to
pursue it, certainly when one considers the
relatively innocuous nature of his alleged
offences, are clearly beyond the capacity of
disgruntled local leaders. They imply the active
participation of higher levels of leadership, at
least at a provincial level. This kind of
involvement however is typical of major cases, in
particular political cases. There is as yet no
indication of political accusations made against
Karma Samdrup. A 'secret' political case is also
unlikely since the Chinese authorities are never
shy of publicising political charges. Pointing to
the anomalies of the case and Karma Samdrup's
high profile, some of his friends who
TibetInfoNet have consulted have said that they
expect the case to be solved through higher
intervention relatively quickly. Whether this
will materialise or newer elements will surface
that cast a light on the case remains to be seen.

What is certain, however, is that the case has a
potentially tremendous influence on those
Tibetans who in the last two decades have been
working towards development in Tibet and an
improvement of the social and ecological
conditions there. For many of these Tibetans,
Karma Samdrup has been something of a role model.
They have shared his approach of working within
rather than against the system, implementing
existing laws before demanding better ones and
believed that in doing this they held the key to
a better developed, but still markedly Tibetan
Tibet. Karma Samdrup's life and work so far have
been evidence that this type of engagement is
possible and had been successful, providing a
feeling of security and confidence that now must be reassessed.

1: Also known under the orthographies 'gzi' or 'zi'.
2: According to that theory, during the last ice
age, the Tibetan plateau played an important
role, next to the north and south poles, in keeping the Earth's climate cool.
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