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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Tibetans Greet New Year in Solemn Opposition

February 27, 2009

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.”

Shartsang was one of more than a dozen monks interviewed over three days
at Rongwo, called Longwu in Chinese. The 700-year-old monastery is a
sprawling complex of golden-eaved temples and labyrinthine alleyways
that is home to 400 monks. Nestled among the valley’s wheat and rapeseed
terraces, it draws pilgrims from across the Tibetan plateau.

The government has stepped up security across Tibet. Here, more than 300
security officers with riot shields were seen training in the stadium on
Wednesday afternoon. On Monday night, a unit of officers marched in
formation along a road cordoned off with yellow tape.

Chinese officials are wary of the boycott mushrooming into larger
protests, and of Tibetans taking to the streets next month, which marks
the 50th anniversary of the uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s flight
from Lhasa to India. Most Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama, who advocates
autonomy, but not secession, for Tibet.

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.

Nevertheless, the monks have put photographs of the Dalai Lama back up
in prayer halls and in their bedrooms. One monk from southern Qinghai
held up an amulet of the Dalai Lama dangling from his neck.

“The Chinese say this is all one country,” he said. “What do we think?
You don’t know what’s in our hearts. They don’t know what’s in our hearts.”

The monk tapped his chest.

Some of the greatest hostility comes from 30 or so monks from Drepung
and Sera monasteries in Lhasa who have sought refuge here, even as some
monks from Rongwo have tried fleeing across the Himalayas to India. Last
spring, after the uprising, security forces in Lhasa cleared out
monasteries and jailed monks for months. About 700 monks were sent to a
camp in Golmud, in Qinghai, for patriotic education, then ordered to
return to their hometowns, said three young monks who were shipped to
the camp.

“We want to go back to our monastery in Lhasa, but the police would
check our ID cards and evict us,” one of the monks said over tea in a
bedroom stacked with Buddhist texts. “We came here because we wanted a
good opportunity to study.”

To try to maintain calm in the monastery, government officials meet
regularly with a council of eight older monks. In early February,
officials had a frank discussion with the council, a senior monk said.

“They said they don’t want any trouble from us,” he said. “They said
they punished us last year by putting us in jail. This year, the
punishment will be this — ” The monk held up a thumb and index finger in
the shape of a pistol.

Eager for the pretense of calm, government officials handed out nearly
$100 to some families in surrounding villages to hold Losar
celebrations. But Tibetans came up with a strategy.

“A lot of village leaders got together and said, ‘If the government
comes around, we’ll tell them that a lot of Tibetans and Chinese were
killed in the earthquake last year, so we can’t celebrate now,’ ” said a
31-year-old Tibetan man from the area.

He said that not a single firecracker has been heard in his village.

Jonathan Ansfield conributed reporting.

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