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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

China expects Tibet to celebrate, or else

February 25, 2009

Instead of planning festivities to mark their beloved New Year's,
Tibetans want to remember those who died in last year's protests against
Chinese rule. But Beijing has other ideas.

By Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times

February 23, 2009

Reporting from Beijing — The Chinese government has a New Year's
greeting for Tibetans: Celebrate, or else.

The Tibetan New Year, or Losar, is normally the most festive holiday of
the year, when Tibetans burn incense, make special dumplings and set off
fireworks. But this year, Tibetans have declared a moratorium on
celebrating their own holiday, saying they will instead observe a
mourning period for people killed last year during protests against
Chinese rule.

The 15-day holiday begins Wednesday, and as it approaches, tensions are
rising. In the last few weeks, the Chinese government has closed large
swaths of western China to foreign visitors -- not just Tibet itself,
but parts of provinces with large Tibetan populations.

Nearly a year after the violent demonstrations reportedly left more than
120 dead, Tibetans are trying a novel technique for nonviolent protest.
"Say No to Losar," as the campaign is called, was launched by Tibetan
groups in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama's home in exile.

"Instead of the usual celebrations marked by singing, dancing and other
festivities, silence will be observed and butter lamps will be lit in
the temples and homes to pray for the deceased," they announced in a
statement last month.

The tactic appears to be driving Chinese authorities crazy. They're
countering with their own campaign of forced merriment, organizing
concerts, pageants, fireworks, horse races, archery competitions.
They've declared a one-week public holiday beginning today in Tibet and
are offering free admission to museums and parks.

The Communist Party in Tibet also gave vouchers worth $120 each to
37,000 low-income families to shop for the holidays.

To further tempt the 2.8 million Tibetans, state television will
broadcast a four-hour gala with 800 performers Tuesday night.

"They want to show that the Tibetan people are happy, that they have
returned to normal life. But by intervening, they're making them
unhappy," said Tsering Shayka, a Tibetan historian now living in Canada.
"They are trying to come up with gimmicks instead of solving the problem."

Robert Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York, says
that Chinese efforts to push New Year's celebrations are likely to backfire.

"I think people will ask, 'Why is the Communist Party telling me what to
do in my own home?' " Barnett said.

At Beijing's Central University for Nationalities, Tibetan students who
had applied last year for permission to hold a Losar celebration
informed the university recently that they wished to cancel. But the
university told them that the party must go on, said a university source
who asked not to be quoted by name.

"Celebrating is compulsory," he said.

As the holiday nears, tensions are spilling into the open.

On Feb. 14, a 39-year-old Tibetan monk set off a furor when he walked
through a public market in the Tibetan plateau's Lithang county carrying
a photograph of the Dalai Lama and chanting, "No Losar." Hundreds of
people reportedly joined the protests, which continued into the next two
days, according to the Dharamsala-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights
and Democracy. The group said that Chinese police detained 21 people,
some of whom were badly beaten, and that the county has been locked down
for the holiday.

Reports say that as many as 20,000 additional soldiers and paramilitary
troops have been deployed in Tibetan areas and that in Qinghai province,
village leaders were threatened with arrest if they urged people not to
celebrate the holiday.

Even among Tibetans, there is a vigorous debate about the campaign to
boycott Losar. The holiday, which dates back to pre-Buddhist times, is
the most beloved in the Tibetan calendar and involves elaborate rituals
and meals. Families traditionally make a soup with special dumplings in
which they hide various items -- chile pepper, wool, charcoal -- and
family members read their fortune by which dumpling they pick.

"The very idea that there won't be any Losar is, let's admit it, a
little bit like calling off Christmas in a Christian community," one
Tibetan blogger complained.

In addition to the tension over the holiday, next month will bring the
50-year anniversary of a failed anti-Chinese uprising, after which the
Dalai Lama fled to India. The date has traditionally been a trigger for
protests within Tibet, and this year might be especially tense because
the Chinese plan to mark the occasion with a celebration of what they
are calling "Serf Emancipation Day." The Chinese government says it
liberated the Tibetans from brutal feudal serfdom.

In a preemptive strike against another flare-up of violence, the Chinese
have held thousands of Tibetans at a detention center east of Lhasa,
according to bloggers in the Tibetan capital.

The Chinese also have launched a crackdown in Tibetan regions on
out-of-town visitors without residency permits. Foreign tourists have
been banned until at least April, people in the tourist industry said.

"It is going to be a very sensitive time. When the Tibetan New Year is
finished, then it will be the one-year anniversary of the riots," said a
Tibetan tour guide who asked not to be quoted by name.

He said foreigners would not be sold plane or train tickets if they
tried to get into Tibetan areas. "You can't get in if they don't want
you in."

barbara.demick@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Eliot Gao of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to
this report.
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