Feb 26, 2009

Tibet: “There is no Losar”

Active ImageAs this Tibetan New Year’s begins, markings of a solemn sense of mourning replaces the joyous sounds of firecrackers

Below is an article published by: The New York Times

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 [25 Feb 2009] 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 [2008].”

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 [2008] conflict and pining for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama.

An informal grass-roots boycott is under way. Tibetans are forsaking dancing and dinner parties for vigils with yak-butter candles and the chanting of prayers. The Losar campaign signifies the discontent that many of […] six million Tibetans still feel toward domination by the ethnic Han Chinese. They are resisting pressure by Chinese 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 [25 Feb 2009], state-run television showed Tibetans in Lhasa dancing, shooting off fireworks and feasting in their homes.

At the same time, the government has drawn a curtain across Tibet. 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 [2009], 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. 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 [25 February 2009] afternoon. On Monday night [23 February 2009] a unit of officers marched in formation along a cordoned-off road.

Chinese officials are wary of the boycott’s mushrooming into larger protests, and of Tibetans taking to the streets next month [March 2009], which marks the 50th anniversary of the uprising that led to the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa. Most Tibetans revere the Dalai Lama, who advocates autonomy, but not secession, for Tibet.

Last March [2008], 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 flared up across western China. Tibetan exile groups say hundreds of Tibetans died in the crackdown.

Rongwo Monastery was a locus of resistance. Even before the 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 [2008], 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.

Waves of crackdowns have fueled resentment.

“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 surveillance — cameras have been installed throughout, monks say, and security officers dressed in monk’s robes wander the alleys.

Nevertheless, the monks have put photographs of the Dalai Lama back up in prayer halls and in their bedrooms. One monk 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 the 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 [2008], after the uprising, security forces in Lhasa cleared out monasteries and jailed monks for months. About 700 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 at 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 them said. “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[2009], they 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 [2008], so we can’t celebrate now,’ ” said a 31-year-old Tibetan man from the area.
He said that not a single firecracker had been heard in his village.