The extensive compound of Shouling Temple on the hillside as seen from a street in Luhuo county, Sichuan Province on February 1. Photo: Li Qian/GT
Tibetan resident Ma Jiankang never thought his family could be attacked and his home destroyed by a mob. Neither did he want to believe the attackers were his fellow Tibetans.
Ma, 51, a former factory worker, now works as a self-employed taxi driver in Luhuo county, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan Province. Events happened too fast for him.
Ma Jiankang is overcome with emotion as he surveys his destroyed home on February 1. Photo: Li Qian/GT
On January 23, the day of Spring Festival, when he and his 74-year-old mother were drinking tea and watching TV at home, Ma's house was stormed by a knife-wielding mob shouting death threats.
As he rushed to find a hiding place, the group, consisting of both men and women, smashed down the door to his courtyard. They destroyed the taxi parked in the yard, Ma's sole source of income save for the 160 yuan a month subsidy he received after being laid off from the factory. Fortunately, Ma, his mother and his cousin managed to escape.
Everything in the house was ruined: The furniture was smashed, and more than 30,000 yuan hidden in Ma's mattress and wardrobe pillaged.
"It's such a big loss for me. Why did this happen to me?" Ma had tears in his eyes as he stood in the ruin of his home.
Ma's house was targeted because his younger brother, Ma Wen'ge, is the chief of a local police station in Luhuo. They went deep into the residential compound to destroy Ma's house. Other houses were spared.
Police station targeted
The attack was part of a wider riot. In the morning, rioters protested at a main road intersection in town before the event turned violent. More than 1,000 people gathered in the riot, though many of them only watched, local officials said.
The rioters turned violent on their way to attack the police station, and the police were forced to respond with gunfire.
The incident resulted in one rioter dead and multiple injured, including many among the police. Officials say that 31 rioters were detained during the riot.
Ma Wen'ge was inside the police station when the riot happened.
According to the police chief, the police first tried to disperse the rioters with high-power water guns and non-lethal weapons like rubber bullets, but failed. The window of the police station facing the street was smashed.
"Rioters continued to attack and tried to grab the guns from the police," he stated.
Then the police decided to open fire, Ma said. "They first shot in the air as a warning, but it was completely ignored, so we had no other choice but to open fire."
A lead rioter was shot down and others scattered.
"The police have no intention of starting a conflict, especially in these ethnic regions," he said. Because of this incident, his Spring Festival holiday was ruined.
Just like Ma, many government employees from the prefecture and county levels had to return from their holiday.
As a frontline law enforcer, Ma says he was ready for all possible situations, but he was sad that his home was targeted.
"I'm prepared for everything, with no fear, save for my family and my elderly mother," he said, lowering his voice.
Non-political residents instigated
Ma is no different from other Tibetans, except for the police uniform. Around 90 percent of police officers in Luhuo are Tibetans, matching the local ethnic makeup.
Within his family, Ma Wen'ge maintains harmony between different beliefs. As a member of the Communist Party of China, Ma doesn't practice Buddhist rituals, but has no problem with his mother being a devout Tibetan Buddhist.
However, harmony is hard to achieve, as a result of a few separatists in and outside of China plotting riots and instigating the mostly non-political Tibetan residents to follow them, according to Ma.
When the mobs attacked Ma's family, the cousin who was hiding under a curtain inside his aunt's room of worship saw a nun smash the Buddhist shrine.
Ma believes it indicates that those people were not really Buddhists, as no true believer would destroy their own icons, but had ulterior motives.
"There's no conflict between Han and Tibetan people. All the crimes were committed by political monks in foreign countries," he claimed.
The riots were a shock and other Tibetan-populated counties quickly tightened security. When the next day, a riot struck Seda, an even more remote county in Ganzi, the police encircled rioters in a square and brought the situation under control in 20 minutes. One of the 200-or-so rioters was shot dead and 13 detained.
After the riots, Internet connections and mobile phone signals were cut off for over 50 kilometers around the riot areas. Police believe external forces played a part in the riots.
Wounds yet to heal
Located deep in the mountains and situated at an altitude of 3,500 meters, the two counties are connected to the outside world only by a winding path.
The natural beauty and dense religious atmosphere make it hard for visitors to connect them with violence.
County officials claimed most Tibetan people relish their peaceful and improved life, but some are easily fooled by "a few monks playing politics and taking advantage of their religious status."
According to local officials, they shoulder heavy responsibilities in maintaining ethnic unity at the grassroots level, and their nerves are strained. Every small problem can be hyped into an international topic.
Each of these counties has dozens of Buddhist monasteries, which are usually the most beautiful buildings in the town. The golden spears on the roof of the temple shine through the streets. The Tibetan residents donate a large portion of their income to the temples.
"The local government has been trying to satisfy the residents, but there's more to be done," Seda county chief Badeng said.
Tibetan counties have been providing government subsidized houses to help Tibetan herdsmen settle down, and are providing more years of free education than national standards and improving medical services, despite meager government budgets. Compared with other underdeveloped regions in western China, life here is more bearable due to its better welfare services.
Through education, the government hopes to show young people where their future lies.
However, education may not be enough. Many of the rioters were unemployed young people who were easily incited to riot, officials say.
"After graduation from middle schools, many young people can't land a job at home as there are few industries and employers," Badeng said, adding that it's a big problem facing his government. Due to its geographical location, the counties find it hard to attract investment from more prosperous regions. The prefecture has been promoting its picturesque towns to boost its tourism industry.
But life goes on. Ma Jiankang has moved to a government-provided home on the other side of the town, and his mother was sheltered in his elder brother's home. They haven't decided what to do with their former residence, but Ma, the taxi driver, stated he wouldn't live there again even if it was rebuilt, for fear of another attack.
Ma has started carrying a wrench with him for self-defense in case he encounters the rioters on the street. It's certain that he will have to live with fear for some time before the wounds heal.
March 10, 2011
The Dalai Lama claims in India that he would "give up" his political role in the Tibetan "government-in-exile" and shift that power to an "elected leader."
March 17, 2011
Rigzin Phuntsog, a 16-year-old monk at Kirti Monastery in Aba County of the Aba Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, dies more than 10 hours after setting himself on fire.
August 30, 2011
A local court in Sichuan Province jails two Tibetan monks (Tsering Tenzin and Tenchum) for intentional homicide over another monk's (Rigzin Phuntsog) death by self-immolation in March.
November 3, 2011
A nun dies after setting herself on fire in Dawu county of Garze Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Sichuan.
January 8, 2012
Nyage Sonamdrugyu, 40, a high-ranking lama, dies after immolating himself in Qinghai, northwest China.
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