Lockdown in Lhasa at Tibetan New Year; unprecedented detentions of hundreds of Tibetans after Dalai Lama teaching in exile

There is an intensified climate of fear in Lhasa on the eve of Tibetan New Year (Losar) and in the buildup to March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 Tibet Uprising and the start of protests that swept across the plateau in 2008. In an indication that a deepening crackdown and anti-Dalai Lama campaign has spread from eastern Tibetan areas to central Tibet in recent weeks, hundreds of Tibetans have been detained upon their return from a major religious teaching by the Dalai Lama in India in January and subjected to ‘re-education.’ The detentions, which have not been seen before on this scale following a Dalai Lama teaching in India, indicate apparent fears by the authorities of a spread in unrest following a series of self-immolations and protests in eastern Tibet.

The first day of Tibetan New Year (February 22) falls on a Wednesday, known as Lhakar Day, on which a number of Tibetans both in exile and in Tibet seek to reaffirm their national identity by wearing traditional clothes, speaking Tibetan, eating in Tibetan restaurants, and buying from Tibetan-owned businesses. Many Tibetans both in exile and in Tibet plan to mark the Tibetan New Year tomorrow by mourning for the 23 Tibetans who have self-immolated since February 2009, and others killed in unrest since 2008 and in recent weeks. The Prime Minister (Kalon Tripa) of the Tibetan government in exile, Lobsang Sangay, said in a statement this week: “As requested, please do not celebrate Losar this year, but do observe traditional and spiritual rituals by going to the monastery, making offerings, and lighting butter lamps for all those Tibetans inside Tibet who have sacrificed and suffered under the repressive policies of the Chinese government.” (CTA, Kalon Tripa’s Losar Statement).

Detentions of Tibetans who attended Kalachakra

Around 7-8,000 Tibetans from inside Tibet attended a major religious ceremony, the Kalachakra, in Bodh Gaya, India (December 31-January 10). As the place where the Buddha was enlightened, Bodh Gaya is a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists and the ceremony was presided over by the Dalai Lama. Tibetans at the Kalachakra reported high levels of fear and tension among Tibetans attending from Tibet, linked to the presence of Chinese informers and officials among pilgrims at the ceremony. According to information received from a number of Tibetan sources, from the end of January onwards, hundreds of Tibetans returning from the Kalachakra have been detained either at the border or when they returned to Lhasa or their home areas. The total number of Tibetans detained is not known – some sources said it is over 500 – and there are fears that Tibetans who have stayed for a longer period in India may be detained too upon return.

Tibetans detained following the Kalachakra have been held in detention centers, including one created in a school and one in an army camp. Some detention centers are close to the airport, and Tibetans who have Chinese passports and who returned from India by plane may have been taken there as soon as they arrived.

Many couples and families have been separated, with some elderly people denied medication. One elderly female relative of a Tibetan in exile who was taken into custody has a heart condition, and fainted in custody while being kept in a separate area to her husband. Over the past week, some elderly Tibetans who are over 70 and sick have apparently been released, but there is still a high number of Tibetans in custody.

Other Tibetans returning to India via different routes have ‘disappeared.’ A Tibetan from the eastern Tibetan area of Amdo told ICT that a relative had ‘disappeared’ after crossing the border into Tibet from Nepal after attending the Kalachakra. It was not until more than four weeks later that the relative heard that she was in detention near Lhasa.

Tibetans returning by land from Nepal through the border at Dram in the Tibet Autonomous Region were held at several check-points, where individuals and their luggage were searched thoroughly. According to several reports, police took away objects such as rosaries, prayer beads, and pictures. A Tibetan from Amdo who was at the Kalachakra in India said: “Tibetans from Tibet at the Kalachakra were very aware of the dangers of taking pictures of the Dalai Lama home with them. There was a beautiful calendar of Bodh Gaya available there which so many Tibetans wanted to keep, but because it included photographs of the Dalai Lama they could not. The Chinese Buddhist devotees there faced the same problem. I saw some of them carefully cutting out pictures of the Dalai Lama on religious texts so that they could take the texts home with them.”

There are reports that many Tibetans detained following their return from Bodh Gaya are being charged daily fees of hundreds of yuan, and are being compelled to undergo ‘legal education.’ A Tibetan from Lhasa who is now in exile said that the detentions are “imposing unbearable psychological and financial pressure on families and communities.” In a report on the detentions, Human Rights Watch stated: “No information is available about how long the detainees will be held, but people with knowledge of the detentions in Lhasa say the detentions are expected to last from 20 days to three months.” (HRW, China: End Crackdown on Tibetans Who Visited India).

Over the past two weeks, officials have called at homes in the Barkhor area of Lhasa, which according to some reports are linked to intimidation of families whose relatives people have not yet returned to Tibet from India. There is an increasing fear by local Tibetans of seizure of personal belongings with any link to the Dalai Lama such as photographs as the lockdown intensifies.

According to other Tibetan sources, a number of Tibetans from the eastern areas of Kham and Amdo who are returning from the Kalachakra via Lhasa were detained upon arrival. They were not allowed to go on pilgrimage to sacred sites within Lhasa including the Jokhang temple and to visit the Potala Palace (a traditional activity at Tibetan New Year), but returned by security and official personnel to their home areas.

The same Tibetan from Lhasa now in exile said: “They are not just detaining people who were being watched in Bodh Gaya, but also anyone who left for Nepal with a passport. Now it seems that the situation has been tightened still further in Lhasa, with people so scared of raids on their houses that they are burning items that may be regarded as suspicious and throwing things away.”

According to a note from Lhasa dated February 18 and cited by the Tibetan writer in exile Jamyang Norbu, “Jokhang Monastery has such a large military presence in and around the area that you have to be careful not to bump into soldiers and police as they crowd the streets of the surrounding market when they go on patrol.” (Ragzen Alliance, Report from Lhasa). Other details given in the note could not be confirmed. Police have been witnessed carrying fire-extinguishers on their back, following self-immolations in eastern Tibetan areas since February 2009.

As reports reached ICT of a buildup of troops and a city under lockdown that is closed to foreign visitors, the state media reported that the Tibetan authorities had been ordered to recognise the “grave situation” in maintaining stability and to ready itself for “a war against secessionist sabotage” (Tibet Daily, February 10). Tibetan sources feared that the unbearable pressure imposed by the lockdown and climate of terror only risks further unrest and danger in Lhasa.

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