Ti­betans re­ject pre­tense of joy, boy­cott new year

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY CHRIS O’BRIEN

TON­GREN, China | Only one Ti­betan vil­lage in China’s west­ern prov­ince of Qing­hai is said to have cel­e­brated Losar, the Ti­betan new year, on sched­ule last week.

The 150 house­holds of Jin­g­long, perched on a hill­top high above the monastery town of Ton­gren, are now the butts of lo­cal jokes.

Af­ter singing, danc­ing and drink­ing in front of state tele­vi­sion cam­eras for a recorded per­for­mance that aired Feb. 24, the eve of the Ti­betan new year, the vil­lagers heard the news: Most Ti­betans are boy­cotting Losar cel­e­bra­tions this year.

“What is there to cel­e­brate?” a shop­keeper in Ton­gren ex­plained. “Too many of our peo­ple died in 2008.” He, like other Ti­betans in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle, asked not to be named to avoid reprisals from Chi­nese po­lice.

In­side the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, a war of wills was rag­ing as the Lu­nar New Year, ac­cord­ing to the Ti­betan cal­en­dar, dawned on Feb. 25.

Many Ti­betans are mark­ing the 15-day fes­ti­val with si­lence, yak­but­ter lamps and pray­ers for those who died in vi­o­lent demon­stra­tions against Chi­nese rule last year.

The Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties ap­pear des­per­ate to en­force gai­ety to show that Ti­betans are noth­ing less than joy­ous. They have em­barked on a gen­eros­ity spree, hand­ing out free fire­works and shop­ping vouch­ers and ar­rang­ing live shows.

But in Qing­hai, where most Ti- be­tan-ma­jor­ity ar­eas cel­e­brated the new year at the end of Jan­uary at the same time as eth­nic Chi­nese, the boy­cott has been ob­served.

Other acts of de­fi­ance are ob­vi­ous in Ton­gren, which most res­i­dents know as Re­bkong, its Ti­betan name.

One of the prayer halls in the town’s Longwu monastery boasts no fewer than five por­traits of the Dalai Lama, even though the im­age of the man the Bud­dhist As­so­ci­a­tion of China has de­nounced as “the root cause of civil un­rest in Ti­bet” is of­fi­cially banned.

A woman sell­ing wares along the strip that leads to the monastery gate keeps a wad of Dalai Lama pic­tures un­der a pile of Ti­betan prayer scripts. They are avail­able for 2 yuan, about 30 cents, but she doesn’t sell to for- eign­ers. “Don’t buy one; it’s not safe,” she warned.

Ton­gren was the scene of one of the first Ti­betan-led ri­ots last Fe­bru­ary, three weeks be­fore fury erupted in the Ti­betan cap­i­tal, Lhasa, and spread to other ar­eas. Res­i­dents re­call the pentup ag­gres­sion that per­vaded the town be­fore the Lantern Fes­ti­val, the fi­nal day of fes­tiv­i­ties for the new year.

“We de­cided on that night that we had to do some­thing,” said one Ti­betan man, who re­fused to di­vulge his name.

The spark was a tiff be­tween two Ti­betans and an eth­nic Hui Mus­lim bal­loon seller. Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal eye­wit­ness ac­counts, more than 1,000 Ti­betans ran amok, torch­ing mo­tor­cy­cles and turn­ing over po­lice cars; monks charged at lines of po­lice, who were wear­ing riot gear.

“I threw rocks, bot­tles, any­thing I could find at them,” the man said. “That night was a small victory for the Ti­betan peo­ple.”

This year, at the ap­proach of the 50th an­niver­sary of the abortive Ti­betan up­ris­ing that spurred the Dalai Lama´s flight to In­dia, lo­cal au­thor­i­ties in Ton­gren are try­ing to min­i­mize the ap­pear­ance of re­pres­sive mea­sures. The po­lice pres­ence on the streets is rel­a­tively sparse, al­though a re­minder that mil­i­tary per­son­nel are sta­tioned just out­side the town comes ev­ery day at 7 a.m. when the roar that ac­com­pa­nies morn­ing ex­er­cise booms out from the bar­racks.

Many lo­cal peo­ple com­plain that a tight net­work of se­cu­rity cam­eras, which was in­stalled last year, mon­i­tors their ev­ery move. Some also fear Ti­betan in­form­ers, who re­ceive bribes from the lo­cal pub­lic se­cu­rity bureau to spy on cho­sen tar­gets.

“You shouldn’t be go­ing around ask­ing sen­si­tive ques­tions,” said the woman run­ning the prayer­script stall. “You never know who you are talk­ing to.” Oth­ers laugh it off. “We know who the spies are. They’re the ones with new cars but no jobs,” a cab­driver said.

The gov­ern­ment also is us­ing one of Ti­bet´s most revered fig­ures. It has launched a cam­paign to cel­e­brate the 10th Panchen Lama, who died 20 years ago, as a “model patriot,” in stark con­trast to the “evil split­tist” tag it slaps on the Dalai Lama.

“We must learn from and con­tinue his pa­tri­otic spirit,” Du Qinglin, a se­nior Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cial for re­li­gious af­fairs, wrote in the of­fi­cial Peo­ple’s Daily in Jan­uary. “He was al­ways at the fore­front of the strug­gle against sep­a­ratism and res­o­lutely pro- tected eth­nic unity.”

The 10th Panchen Lama’s el­derly cousin, who helps main­tain his late rel­a­tive’s birth­place in Xun­hua, a two-hour drive over the moun­tains from Ton­gren, is not con­vinced.

“I’m not sure that what Chi­nese of­fi­cials say out­wardly about the Panchen Lama matches what they feel in­side,” he said, be­fore de­clin­ing to talk fur­ther about pol­i­tics.

In other Ti­betan ar­eas, au­thor­i­ties are re­ly­ing on force. A five­hour bus ride south of Ton­gren is Xi­ahe, home to the largest monastery out­side Ti­bet and site of one of last year’s fiercest re­bel­lions. Lo­cal res­i­dents say the town is sealed off by po­lice check­points.

Reuters re­ported that hun­dreds of riot-con­trol po­lice, some with guns, are hold­ing drills out­side Kangding, a Ti­betan town in Sichuan prov­ince. Far­ther west in Lithang, Chi­nese forces have de­tained up to 24 Ti­betans for shout­ing sup­port for the Dalai Lama, ac­cord­ing to Ti­betan ex­ile groups.

Tour guides in Lhasa say po­lice are po­si­tioned ev­ery 100 yards on the main streets. Some tour op­er­a­tors are tak­ing a long hol­i­day af­ter travel agen­cies said per­mits stopped be­ing is­sued two weeks ago to for­eign­ers want­ing to travel to Ti­bet. Most heav­ily Ti­betan re­gions are also closed to for­eign­ers.

“The pol­icy of an open Ti­bet will not change. As for for­eign peo­ple, in­clud­ing for­eign jour­nal­ists trav­el­ing to Ti­bet, they can ap­ply through nor­mal chan­nels,” Chi­nese For­eign Min­istry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said at a news con­fer­ence in Bei­jing.

“Now Ti­bet is sta­ble, and the so­cial or­der is calm. Ti­betans in ar­eas that cel­e­brate the new year at this time are go­ing ahead with cel­e­bra­tions. The Dalai clique´s at­tempt to spread ru­mors to de­stroy Ti­bet’s sta­bil­ity will fail,” he said.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ti­betan monks mark the eve of Losar in Bei­jing. In the Ti­bet Au­ton­o­mous Re­gion, the 15-day fes­ti­val is be­ing ob­ser ved with si­lence.

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