Tibetans in China and abroad have started a boycott of the Tibetan New Year (Losar) fortnight, which started on February 25, 2009. They are observing the fortnight as a period of mourning in homage to the Tibetans who were killed by the Chinese security forces during the uprising in the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China in March and April last year. Their observance of the period of mourning consisted of prayers and processions. In some places, they also burnt the effigies of the Chinese leaders in keeping with the Tibetan tradition of burning the effigies of demons during the New Year.
In the Qinghai province, over 100 Tibetan monks of the Lutsang monastery took out a silent procession in the Mangra ( the Chinese call it Guinan) county on February 25,2009. The procession terminated at the country centre, where the local Government offices are located. They presented a petition to a representative of the local Government calling, inter alia, for an international enquiry into the violent incidents of last year. The petition also appealed to the Chinese leaders to respect the wishes and feelings of the Tibetan youth. After observing silence for 30 minutes at the county centre, they went back to their monastery peacefully. The local Chinese authorities did not try to prevent the procession and accepted their petition.
However, on February 26,2009, vans of the Public Security Bureau went round the county asking the leaders of the procession to surrender to the police and the local population to help the police in the identification and arrest of the leaders. They warned of legal action against those not carrying out the orders and not co-operating with the police. A few hours later, a contingent of the People's Armed Police (PAP) raided the monastery and took away a number of monks for interrogation at the police station.
The Chinese authorities in Tibet and other areas having a large Tibetan population organised singing and dancing in public squares and street plays, showing how the Chinese vanquished serfdom and what was portrayed as the feudal rule of the Dalai Lama. A large number of Han Chinese living and working in these areas attended the State-sponsored celebrations, which were largely boycotted by the Tibetans despite the payment of a cash gift by the Chinese to Tibetans attending the celebrations. However, there are no reports of the Chinese forcing the Tibetans to attend the celebrations, which could have led to violence.
Coinciding with the beginning of the New Year fortnight, the Chinese authorities suspended the issue of permission to foreign tourists and journalists to visit Tibet and the Tibetan-inhabited areas. They have indicated that this ban could continue till the end of March.
However, Edward Wong of the International Herald Tribune managed to visit Qinghai--presumably with a permit issued by the Chinese before the imposition of the temporary ban. His despatch, which was carried by the IHT on February 25,2009, stated as follows: "The most prominent act of Tibetan resistance to Chinese rule since an uprising last March, unfolded quietly in towns across western China on Wednesday (February 25), as monks, nomads and merchants refrained from holding festivities and instead used the occasion of Losar to memorialize Tibetans who suffered in China's military crackdown last year. Many Tibetans forsook dancing and dinner parties for the lighting of yak-butter lamps and the chanting of prayers. The result of a grassroots campaign that began months ago, the boycott of Losar signifies the discontent that many of China's six million Tibetans still feel toward domination by the ethnic Han Chinese nearly one year after the uprising and almost six decades after Mao Zedong's troops seized control of the high deserts and grasslands of Tibet.
Although more passive than the protests and riots of last year, the boycott has raised tensions. Tibetans here (in Tongren) and in other towns, including Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, say Government officials have handed out money to Tibetans to spur them to celebrate. On Wednesday, the government was eager to show festive Tibetans on state-run television: It broadcast footage of Tibetans in Lhasa dancing, shooting off fireworks and feasting in their homes. But no such activities were in evidence in this part of Qinghai Province, near the birthplace of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, except for a flurry of firecrackers set off at noon by Chinese officers outside a paramilitary compound. The boycott of festivities began even earlier, during Chinese New Year, which ran for two weeks from late January and which Tibetans here tend to observe alongside Losar. "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."
The Government has stepped up security across Tibet and shut off access to foreigners. Here in the town of Tongren, called Rebkong by Tibetans, 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. Like most of the people interviewed for this article, the monk asked that his name not be used, for fear of 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," the monk said. "What do we think? You don't know what's in our hearts. They don't know what's in our hearts," he said, and 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 Province for four months of patriotic education, then ordered to return to their hometowns for three months, said three young monks who were shipped to the camp. The three are now studying here. "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."
While the Chinese have prevented all foreign journalists from visiting Tibet, N. Ram, the Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu of Chennai, was a privileged visitor to Tibet for two days to observe how the Tibetans are observing Losar. The official Xinhua news agency (February 26) reported as follows after his visit: "Mr. Ram’s latest visit coincided with the run-up to the Tibetan New Year. He said: "We witnessed fewer people in work places as they went back home to celebrate the New Year.There was no sign of strain or suppression there as people were filled with excitement and the atmosphere was festive. There were plenty of signs of prosperity on my long drive from Lhasa to Nyingchi. The contrast between the old and the new is very powerful, demonstrating what the Chinese Government and the system have done for Tibet."
On February 26, 2009, The Hindu disseminated a report of the Xinhua describing how the Tibetans were celebrating the Losar.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies.
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