The leading Tibetan intellectual, a writer, publisher and philosopher long seen as close to China’s ruling Communist Party, has been arrested after organising private donations for this month’s earthquake.
Tra Gyal, better known by his penname of Zhogs Dung, was detained at 5.30pm on Friday in Xining, capital of the western province of Qinghai where the April 14 tremor killed more than 2,000 people, Tibetan sources said.
Half a dozen police picked him up from his office at the Qinghai Nationalities Publishing House, took him to his home and carried out a meticulous search of his study, taking him away at about 10.00pm.
The officers returned in the early hours of the morning and removed two computers, written documents and pictures and came back again at about 3.30am to show the writer’s wife a formal arrest warrant for her husband.
Tra Gyal – both first names – who is aged about 45, has gained renown as Tibet’s premier intellectual and essayist, a moderniser who has not hesitated to credit religion in the deeply Buddhist region and who has long been seen as closely associated with the ruling Communist Party.
However, he appears to have run foul of the authorities in recent weeks through his writings that have become more critical of Chinese rule of Tibetan regions, and also because of his activism after the earthquake.
He may have triggered anger by mobilising private donations to help the 100,000 people left homeless in remote, mountainous Yushu county after the 7.1 magnitude tremor that razed the county town. He had asked Tibetans not to send their funds via China’s Red Cross or through official channels but to travel as volunteers to Yushu to ensure the donations reached those in need.
The Government have long been wary of any attempts at independent organisation – an action viewed as in direct competition with Communist Party rule – and are bound to be more sensitive in the case of Tibetans who have long chafed at being governed by Beijing. Indeed, the authorities had specifically banned private donations to Yushu.
Robert Barnet, a Tibet expert at Columbia University, said: “This is an astonishing thing for the authorities to do since they risk creating a hero among Tibetans.”
One Tibetan expert said: “The arrest is of wholly exceptional significance not just because he is the leading Tibetan public intellectual but because he is an ‘official intellectual’ whose position has always been seen by many Tibetans as unusually close to the Party and the Chinese state in terms of his views on religion and Tibetan culture.”
Several lesser-known Tibetan writers have been arrested and even jailed in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces in recent months, but the action against a man seen as a part of the system is a surprise.
The writer joined six other prominent Tibetan intellectuals in signing an open letter on April 21 that contained mild criticism of the official response to the earthquake. This could have angered the authorities who are nervous at any sign of opposition from Tibetans since a riot rocked the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in March 2008 leaving some 22 people dead.
The letter read: “As the news from the mouthpiece for the Party organisations can not be believed, we dare not believe in the Party organisations. The Party organisation ordered to temporarily suspend sending people to the disaster area for political purposes. For this reason, we in faraway Xining out of concern for you and your suffering send you this letter, apart from this, there is nothing else we can do.”
It concluded with an appeal for people to avoid official organisations in sending donations, saying: “Do not send your donations to the accounts of a certain organisation or a certain group as if you were paying taxes. The best thing to do is to send somebody one can fully trust to send one’s contributions. Because, who can say that there is no corruption.”