Tibetans greet new year in solemn opposition

By Edward Wong Published: February 25, 2009

TONGREN, China: Snow fell across this mountain valley as red-robed monks in a prayer hall beat drums and chanted in tantric harmony, a seemingly auspicious start to Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

But a monk watching the ritual on Wednesday morning made it clear: This was a ceremony of mourning, not celebration.

“There is no Losar,” he said, standing in this monastery town on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. “They killed so many people last year.”

A few weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule, and a year after a crackdown on renewed ethnic unrest in this area, Tibetans are quietly but irrepressibly seething. Monks, nomads and merchants have turned the joyous Losar holiday into a dirge, memorializing Tibetans who died in last year’s conflict and pining for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama.

An informal grassroots boycott is under way. Tibetans are forsaking dancing and dinner parties for vigils with yak-butter candles and the somber chanting of prayers. The Losar campaign signifies the discontent that many of China’s 6 million Tibetans still feel toward domination by the ethnic Han Chinese. They are resisting pressure by Chinese government officials to celebrate and forget.

“It’s a conscious awakening of an entire people,” said Woeser, a popular Tibetan blogger.

Tibetans here and in other towns, including in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, say government officials have handed out money to Tibetans to entice them to hold exuberant new year parties. On Wednesday, state-run television showed Tibetans in Lhasa dancing, shooting off fireworks and feasting in their homes.

But officials have shut down access to many Tibetan regions to foreigners and sent armed guards to patrol the streets.

Here in eastern Qinghai Province, near the Dalai Lama’s birthplace, the boycott of festivities began as early as January, during the Chinese Lunar New Year. On Wednesday in Tongren, called Rebkong by Tibetans, one of the few bursts of firecrackers took place outside a Chinese paramilitary compound.

“The government thinks we should celebrate this holiday properly,” said Shartsang, the abbot of Rongwo Monastery. “Certainly this year people haven’t celebrated it in the same way they did in past years.”

Last March, China was convulsed by the largest Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in decades. It began when the suppression of protests by monks in Lhasa led to ethnic rioting by Tibetans. Eighteen civilians and one police officer were killed, according to Xinhua, the state news agency. Riots and protests quickly flared up across western China, and security forces detained thousands. Tibetan exile groups say hundreds of Tibetans were killed in the crackdown.

Rongwo Monastery was a locus of resistance. Even before the March riots in Lhasa, monks joined Tibetan townspeople to protest the way the police had handled a dispute between Tibetans and ethnic Hui Muslims. More than 200 monks were detained in that incident. During the March uprising, security forces surrounded the monastery, only to be met by stone-hurling monks.

Over the summer, leading monks were detained in a nearby school and forced to undergo patriotic education, which meant studying Chinese law and being told to denounce the Dalai Lama.

“They broke into my room and took away all my photos of the Dalai Lama,” said one monk, 53, as he held up a pile of five empty glass picture frames. “Then they led monks away with their wrists bound by wires.”

Like almost all the people interviewed for this article, the monk asked that his name not be used to avoid government reprisal. The monastery is under tight surveillance — cameras have been installed throughout, monks say, and security officers dressed in monk’s robes wander the alleyways.

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