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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

A Silent Start to the New Year for Many Tibetans in China

February 19, 2009

By Simon Elegant / TONGREN, Qinghai Province
Wednesday, Feb. 18, 2009

When asked how his New Year celebrations have been, the pilgrim — a
middle-aged businessman wearing a heavy winter coat against the bitter
winds that knife through the monastery's narrow alleys — immediately
glances up and then over his shoulder. It is the universal, instinctive
reaction of Tibetans I talked with on a recent trip to China's far
western province of Qinghai, where ethnic Tibetans make up the majority
of the population in the areas closest to the Qinghai-Tibet border.
"Cameras," he hisses, nodding upwards. "The police have them everywhere."

Pulling me into the shadow of one of the deep doorways cut into the
monastery's thick walls, he launches into a tirade that reflects the
feelings of most of the Tibetans I spoke to in the region, a group
ranging from nomadic herdsmen and shopkeepers to students and monks. "We
didn't celebrate anything this year because we have nothing to
celebrate," he says grimly. "We want to respect and commemorate the
people who were killed last year" when demonstrations against Chinese
rule in Lhasa, capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region which neighbors
Qinghai, turned violent. Beijing says 19 were killed, mostly innocent
Chinese shopkeepers. Tibet's government in exile, led by its spiritual
leader the Dalai Lama, put the number at over 200, mostly Tibetans. This
businessman, like many of his compatriots, passionately declares the the
real number is in the thousands. "We are a people living under the gun.
They tried to make us celebrate the new year but we refused. They jail
us if we display pictures of the Dalai Lama. They even force our
children to study only in Chinese at school," he tells me. "But we will
never forget we are Tibetans and will always have the Dalai Lama in our

To mark the anniversary, many Tibetans conducted a widespread campaign
of civil disobedience this Chinese New Year against authorities in
heavily Tibetan areas of China proper like Qinghai, where around half of
the country's three million ethnic Tibetans live. And with a probable
boycott of lunar year celebrations set to unfold inside Tibet, where the
15-day celebrations begin on February 25th according to the Tibetan
lunar calendar, tension is likely to rise further. Even Chinese
officials have said they can't rule out an outbreak of trouble, blaming
the Dalai Lama for fomenting unrest. Tensions could peak closer to March
14th, when the bloody demonstrations started.

Tibetan exile groups are already reporting that 15 protesters have been
arrested in recent days in the Tibetan-dominated town of Litang in
Sichuan province. Chinese authorities have apparently decided that all
Tibetan areas of China proper are now out of bounds to foreigners until
at least April. Combined with Beijing's decision to keep out all but a
handful of tightly escorted foreign reporters (TIME's applications to
visit Lhasa have been repeatedly refused) out of Tibet since the
protests last March, ethnically Tibetan areas of China are now
effectively sealed off from the world.
If the sentiment in areas like Qinghai is anything to go by, further
protests, arrests and possibly worse seem inevitable given the depth of
anger among the Tibetan population. Most Tibetans here refused to
undertake any of the public activities which usually mark the coming of
the new year. "There was no dancing or singing. No one let off fireworks
even though the Chinese gave people money to buy them," says one young
villager. He says the decision was not coordinated by outside forces
(officials from Tibet's government in exile have called for a boycott of
the celebrations in interviews with the media), but is a spontaneous
reflection of Tibetan's anger over the deaths last March. "Everyone is
still very sad and also very angry at the Chinese authorities for what
happened. No one felt like celebrating."

Not surprisingly, the boycott has apparently angered Chinese
authorities, who exile sources allege have been engaged in a security
crackdown code named "Strike Hard" since January 18th in an attempt to
head off trouble. "They have conducted house-to-house searches. They
have military in plain clothes everywhere and snipers on the roofs,"
says Tsewang Rigzen, president of the Dharmsala-based Tibetan Youth
Council. According to one nomadic herdsman I met at the Longwu Monastery
in Tongren, one of the most important outside the Tibet Autonomous
Region (TAR), the attempt by the authorities to force celebrations — and
the Tibetan resistance that followed — has extended even into some
remote areas. The 53-year-old, dressed in a traditional fleece-lined
long coat and fingering his prayer beads, recounts how security forces
came in January to his village in neighboring Gansu province and tried
to enforce celebrations by a system of collective responsibility. "Ten
days before new year, the police came and divided us into groups of
twenty families and put one or two people in charge. They were given a
few thousand yuan and told they were responsible, that would be punished
if there were no celebrations," he explained. "Later they came and
arrested nine people who they said were ringleaders in the refusal
campaign, even though they had nothing to do with it."

Following the unrest last year, security forces arrested thousands of
Tibetans on suspicion of involvement. Since then, the majorityhave been
released and life for Tibetans had seemed to have begun to return to
normal. Some foreign tourists were even trickling into the region. But
the coming months will provide a severe test of that relative calm.
"It's hard to predict what will happen," says Tsewang of the Youth
Council. "But if they try to shove it down their throats and make
Tibetans celebrate, that would not be good at all." Even if this period
passes quietly, the year ahead contains many more potentially explosive
anniversaries for Tibetans. April will mark the 20th anniversary the
bloody 1989 suppression of anti-Chinese protests in Lhasa. Even more
sensitive will be the 50th anniversary in mid-March of the Dalai Lama's
flight into exile in India after the so-called "Lhasa uprising" was
suppressed by the People's Liberation Army.

The herdsman shakes his grizzled head when I ask if it is possible that
an influx of Chinese immigrants and modernization could mean that such
events — and the protests in March of 2008 — could eventually be
forgotten. "What happened last year is now part of our history too. Even
my son's sons and their sons will remember after I die. They will hate
the government, too. We will never forget."
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