The crackdown in Tibet under Xi: the March anniversaries and Tibetan New Year as Xi Jinping marks a year in power

  • During the sensitive period of the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 uprising and 2008 protests, security was intensified with massive military deployment in Lhasa and other Tibetan areas in ‘emergency stability maintenance’ drills.
  • Devices to grab self-immolators were showcased by paramilitary troops in a display of fire-power intended to be intimidating during a period which is a somber reminder to Tibetans of more than 50 years of oppression.
  • Two Tibetan monks set fire to themselves on March 16, the anniversary of the killing of unarmed protestors in 2008 in Ngaba.
  • Troop deployment was particularly intimidating and visible at prayer ceremonies in eastern Tibetan areas in the buildup to Tibetan New Year (Losar), which fell this year on March 2, just a week before the March 10 anniversary.
  • At the same time, Tibetans are seeking to counter the oppressive measures and in one new development, made appeals to local leaders against the heavy deployment of troops in monasteries and at religious gatherings, and expressed their distress about the disappearances of Tibetans and torture of Tibetans in custody, with some parents submitting letters about the disappearance of their children.

The ‘hyper-securitized’ environment in Tibet and the March anniversaries

Over the past year of Xi Jinping’s leadership – he assumed full power on March 13, 2013 – the crackdown across Tibet has deepened, particularly in areas where there have been self-immolations or unrest. Policies and measures that undermine Tibetan culture and religion that led to the protests and unrest in the first place have been strengthened, while the ‘unbearable oppression’ cited by a number of self-immolators in their last statements has been intensified.

On March 9, a large-scale military drill was held in Lhasa, the day before the significant anniversary of the uprising and protests.[1] The state media published images of armed paramilitary police in balaclavas standing in formation and armored vehicles, announcing that it was an ‘emergency stability maintenance’ drill carried out in order to test “the comprehensive combat capability” of the armed forces. (http://legal.gmw.cn/2014-03/11/content_10645618.htm).[2]

On March 13, the day before ‘3/14’, 2008, when the Chinese Government began a violent crackdown accusing the Tibetans of “rioting”, they conducted a second military drill. The official media ran a slideshow of paramilitary troops in riot gear in a show of force, including images showcasing a metal hoop device on a pole that is apparently used to grab people who have set fire to themselves. The images show this device being tested by police with fire extinguishers nearby. (http://news.163.com/photoview/00AN0001/51328.html?from=tj_day#p=9NA0M19K00AN0001&from=tj_review).

military drill in Lhasa

Device showcased at military drill in Lhasa is to grab self-immolators.


The military drills were evidence of “the mighty force of the participating Public Security officers and forces”, according to the state media report, and “demonstrated the safeguarding of national unity, the strong momentum of maintaining a stable society, and their firm conviction.”[3]

The Lhasa Evening News also reported on March 10 that since March 8 – which was the 25th anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Lhasa in 1989 – police from seven police stations were visible in the streets “handing out leaflets about women and children’s protection laws” (Lhasa Evening News, March 10, 2014). The intimidating presence of the police was likely to have been the intended message of the exercise for the local population.

Security was also intensified in specific areas that appear to have been targeted by the authorities, including Chabcha (Chinese: Gonghe) and Trika (Guide) counties in Tsolho (Hainan), and Bayan Khar (Hualong) county in the Tsoshar (Haidong) prefecture, all in Qinghai, according to a report by Radio Free Asia (March 12, 2104). Increased troops were also deployed in Sangchu (Chinese: Xiahe) county in Kanlho (Gannan), Gansu province (RFA report, China in ‘Unprecedented’ Show of Force on Tibetan Uprising Anniversary).[4]

Tibetan writer and blogger Tsering Woeser noted that Tibet Autonomous Region officials speaking in Beijing describe Lhasa as the “happiest” city in China, saying: “Then why did they need the commander-in-chief of stability maintenance headquarters to declare: ‘This stability maintenance response simulation exercise is our new starting point. We need to watch closely all the important sensitive spots…it’s most important to prevent individual extreme events such as self immolations, violent terrorist events, illegal gatherings […]. ..strike hard as soon as any enemies dare to jump out and incite.’” (Posted on Facebook and as a blog, March 11, 2014).

Woeser was referring to the city being characterized as top of the ‘Happy Index’ of China’s cities in a survey in 2012 that is still referenced by TAR leaders.[5] At the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, last week, Tibetan chairman Pema Thinley (Chinese: Padma Choling) continued the theme of covering up evidence of Tibetans’ anguish under oppression when he denied that any monks in the Tibet Autonomous Region had self-immolated.[6]

While most self-immolations have occurred outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, in the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo now incorporated into Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai, at least six Tibetans from the TAR have self-immolated, and two Tibetans from Amdo set fire to themselves in Lhasa in May, 2012 – the same month the city was named as top of China’s ‘Happiness Index’.[7]

In what has become an annual month-long closure to foreign tourists linked to the anniversaries, travel agencies stopped processing permits for foreign tourists to the Tibet Autonomous Region from around February 25. The authorities do not formally announce the closure of the Tibet Autonomous Region in March each year, but information emerges from tour operators when they are instructed not to issue permits for foreign tourists.[8]

On March 16, the anniversary of the killing of unarmed protestors in Ngaba in 2008, a Tibetan monk in his twenties called Lobsang Palden set fire to himself in the main street in Ngaba, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo). Lobsang Palden was the second Kirti monk to set fire to himself on the anniversary of a protest in the town in 2008 during which at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead. On March 16, 2011, Kirti monk Phuntsog set himself on fire and later died. His cremation became the focus of a remarkable outpouring of grief and expressions of solidarity in the area. The state media reported a second self-immolation on March 16, in Tsekhog (Zeku) county in Qinghai province’s Malho (Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, but further details are not available. (Radio Free Asia, Two Tibetan Monks Self-Immolate on Crackdown Anniversary).

Lobsang Palden

Lobsang Palden, a Kirti monk in his twenties, aflame in Ngaba on March 16, 2014.

Tibetans express distress at heavy troop deployment and disappearances

Even despite this “hyper-securitized” environment,[9] Tibetans continue to undertake acts of solidarity with others at great personal risk, seeking to protect their communities and the core values of Tibetan culture and national identity.

In a new development, Tibetans expressed their concerns and anguish about the ‘disappearances’ of many Tibetans in direct appeals to leaders at the annual session of the regional Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference held in Xining, Qinghai province in January (2014). Tibetan sources estimated that several hundred petitions from individuals were presented at the conference. Some of them were parents referring to incidents when their children were taken away, and they had not known where they were detained for several months. Others referred to individuals who had been almost broken by torture while in custody. According to Tibetan sources, many of the Tibetan petitioners made the point that legal measures were acceptable, but disappearances and torture contravened Chinese law.[10]

Among the appeals presented were some calling for an end to troop deployment in monasteries. The heavy security in Tibetan monasteries, often accompanying political ‘patriotic education’ campaigns, has been a strong cause of concern among Tibetans for some time. It was raised in the context of quiet discussions in the Tibetan area of Tsolho, Qinghai last year that proposed a more nuanced approach to the aggressive campaign against the exiled religious leader that is linked to the self-immolations and is a cause of widespread anguish among Tibetans. Some senior religious figures suggested that monasteries should be allowed to operate without so much scrutiny and management from outside, except in cases of politically ‘unstable’ monasteries, and that internal mediation should be attempted first following disputes. The discussions were shut down amid a backdrop of tightening repression in eastern Tibet following a visit by one of China’s top leaders Yu Zhengsheng in July (2013).[11]

There is evidence that the authorities in some areas have recognized the provocative and counter-productive nature of installing security forces in monasteries, and have instead strengthened monastic management teams and tightened surveillance mechanisms and patriotic education obligations.[12] But heavy troop presence has been increasingly evident at religious festivals and in small towns and rural areas since the self-immolations began in 2009.

Troops with riot shields gathering at Kumbum for the Monlam prayer festival

Troops with riot shields gathering at Kumbum for the Monlam prayer festival, which began on February 10, 2014.

In the weeks prior to Losar, massed troops in riot gear turned out in force at one of the great Gelugpa monasteries, Kumbum in Qinghai (the Tibetan area of Amdo), south-west of the provincial capital of Xining, for the Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival) on February 14. Pilgrims were scarcely visible on some of the images that reached the outside world of troops at Kumbum at the prayer festival, which traditionally follows Amdo New Year (coinciding with Chinese New Year). Lines of white gates with security scanners were visible in scenes more resembling a sensitive and highly militarized border checkpoint or airport that a monastery where many Chinese Buddhist devotees visit to pray and receive teachings.

Large numbers of Tibetans also gathered to mark the Monlam ceremony at Labrang Tashikyil (Chinese: Xiahe) in Gansu and Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren) in Qinghai. They also gathered for the ceremony at Kirti in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba). The first self-immolation in Tibet occurred after the Monlam ceremony was cancelled at Kirti in February, 2009. Young Kirti monk Tapey walked out of the monastery and set himself on fire after hearing that they would not be allowed to observe the ceremony.[13]

Matteo Mecacci, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “In the March anniversary period, we remember and pay tribute to the courage and resilience of Tibetans inside Tibet, who against the odds are continuing to express themselves peacefully and to draw deep from the values of Tibetan culture and religion to sustain themselves at such a dark moment in their history. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership, unfortunately the Chinese authorities are continuing to wage a counter-insurgency without insurgents, and against citizens who claim the respect of their rights. There is an urgent need for re-evaluation of this dangerous and counter-productive policies.”

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Footnotes
[1] ICT report, ‘A Struggle of Blood and Fire’: http://www.savetibet.org/a-struggle-of-blood-and-fire

[2] In Chinese political language, ‘stability’ is a coded reference to the need to prevent any form of ‘social disorder.’ In Tibetan areas of the PRC, ‘stability maintenance’ has effectively been carried out on a war footing.

[3] Translation from Chinese, http://legal.gmw.cn/2014-03/11/content_10645618.htm. Full translation of extract as follows: ‘On the morning of March 9, our Autonomous Region’s Public Security organs and forces held stability maintenance emergency drills. These stability maintenance emergency drills tested the comprehensive combat capability of both our Autonomous Region’s Public Security organs and the Public Security Command Stability Maintenance Forces to deal with the unexpected, and also their ability to mobilize once more by fighting well and winning the current stability maintenance battle. All participating Public Security officers and forces were full of energy and had high morale. All armored vehicles, equipment vehicles, and special vehicles were equipped well, fully demonstrating the mighty force of the participating Public Security officers and forces, and the good image of the civilized army. This demonstrated the safeguarding of national unity, the strong momentum of maintaining a stable society, and their firm conviction.’

[4] Chinese tourists to Tibet have increasingly documented high levels of militarization in Tibet through social media. A new report by ICT presents first-hand testimony and photographic evidence from Chinese visitors to Tibet that continues to
come to light despite state intervention and restrictions: http://www.savetibet.org/chinese-microbloggers-reveal-chinas-systemic-militarization-of-tibet/.

[5] One report stated: “The Happiest Cities in China is an appraisal based on the happy index from most of the citizens. […] There might be different results based on different media and standards, however, cities in China has focused more on happiness and security rather than money, thus providing a sense of belonging to all.” (http://www.cits.net/china-travel-news/2012/08-22/lhasa-tops-happiest-cities.html).

[6] Pema Thinley, chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the Tibet Autonomous Region, sought to defer blame from TAR authorities when he told reporters: “Among 1,700 monasteries and 46,000 monks in the autonomous region, there isn’t one monk or local resident who self-immolated since similar events were plotted by the Dalai Lama clique.” (Global Times, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/847261.shtml?utm_content=bufferb8b61&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer#.Ux2_EbUk2Xd).

[7] (http://www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/).

[8] The travel company Explore Tibet posted on February 19: “Currently the Tibet Travel Permit after Feb 20th is not applicable and as usual the permit for the whole month of March is difficult to get, so then all the permit regulations will back to normal from March 28.” (http://www.exploretibet.com/Essential-Info/Tibet-Visa-Permits/) A posting on the Lonely Planet website stated: “We received notice that all non-Chinese tourists who traveling or will be travelling in Tibet must leave Tibet before 25th Jan, 2014, otherwise, you cannot get permit into Tibet” (http://www.lonelyplanet.com/thorntree/thread.jspa?threadID=2373508).

[9] Term used to describe the level of militarisation in Tibet by Tsering Topgyal, University of Birmingham, UK, ‘Developing the “Trans-Unit” Dynamics of Securitizaation, Understanding the Tibetan Self-Immolations’, unpublished paper

[10] Disappearances are a clear contravention of notification procedures required under China’s Criminal Procedure Law.

[11] ICT report, http://www.savetibet.org/discussions-on-anti-dalai-lama-policy-shut-down-in-qinghai-kalachakra-in-tsolho-cancelled/.

[12] For an account of the authorities’ strategies to deepen patriotic education, see ICT report, ‘Storm in the Grasslands: Self-Immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy’, http://www.savetibet.org/storm-in-the-grasslands-self-immolations-in-tibet-and-chinese-policy/

[13] http://www.savetibet.org/monk-in-tibet-sets-himself-on-fire-shot-by-police-during-protest/. Images from last year depicted thousands of Tibetans gathered in the last few days of Tibetan New Year (Losar) for significant religious ceremonies in eastern Tibet, despite being forced to confront massed ranks of armed troops. The pictures from 2013, disseminated on social media, showed higher numbers of Tibetans than usual gathering to pray at major monasteries – Labrang and Kumbum – during the Monlam prayer festival as troops stand guard or encircle the pilgrims. (http://www.savetibet.org/thousands-of-tibetan-pilgrims-face-troops-at-religious-ceremonies-in-eastern-tibet/).

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