Tibetans “in mourning” as Chinese New Year begins

Let Us Make Lamp Offerings and Light Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Deceased

‘Let Us Make Lamp Offerings and Light Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Deceased’ by Woeser (High Peaks Earth)

Tibetans in different areas of Tibet marked the beginning of the Chinese New Year yesterday (January 26) by ‘mourning’ and in somber reflection on the crackdown following the protests that swept across Tibet last year, according to sources in Tibet. In an unprecedented “outpouring of emotion”, many Tibetans posted blogs and comments mostly opposing any celebration of Tibetan New Year (Losar), which begins next month on February 25 according to the Tibetan calendar, which is different to the Chinese lunar calendar. In many areas, security was stepped up for the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), and reports from Tibet indicated that the authorities were making great efforts to persuade Tibetans to celebrate, including giving money to families for the purchase of firecrackers and checking whether they had been used or not.

Some reports stated that local authorities had ordered that Tibetan New Year celebrations should be brought forward by one month to coincide with Chinese New Year. A blog by one Tibetan on a Tibetan website reported that the county government had told Kirti monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) in Sichuan province to change the dates of new year and winter religious ceremonies to coincide with the Chinese New Year. This year, the two new years are a month apart , although in some parts of the Tibetan area of Amdo, the New Year has been celebrated according to the Chinese calendar. Security was stepped up on the streets near Kirti, where at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead during a protest last March. One source told ICT: “Local people [in Ngaba] are not celebrating [the New Year]. Tibetan women are in the streets, with solemn faces, showing sadness rather than happiness, and to symbolize the non-celebratory mood they carry around dry bread and eat that.”

An anonymous Tibetan blogger posted the following comment on a Chinese-language, Tibetan-run website on January 25: “The 2009 Losar was always going to be unusual because so many people have been killed. In our family, our father can never come back, our mother has visibly aged, uncles and brothers have been detained – some of whom we still don’t whether they’re dead or alive. Last night, the eldest brother in the neighbor’s family was taken away. There’s a guy from a village nearby who used to roam all over the place doing business who was locked up for a few months and recently released. But his body is so fragile now that he has to stay in bed with his wife and children looking after him. When you go out, although the police on the streets aren’t as evident as they were a few months ago, there are still a lot. There are armed PAP [People’s Armed Police] guys on the roofs ‘maintaining social stability’. Leaders on television are going round paying their respects and urging people to have a good year… I myself will not be celebrating the new year because those who died were my compatriots, and I knew several of those who died – they were shot dead. I haven’t dared call home since March of last year because I don’t want to cause them any trouble. And so I don’t know how they are. I’ve had no information on them, and just hope they’re okay.”

In Lhasa, many people did not let off fireworks to mark Chinese New Year although money to buy them was supplied by the government, according to a report received by ICT. The same source said that: “Most of the Tibetans from Amdo [eastern Tibet] were in mourning for the first day of the spring [Chinese New Year] festival”.

The Tibetan source from Lhasa reported that: “Unlike previous years, the government bought red lanterns and put them almost on almost every street in county towns and especially in Lhasa.” The same source said that security was being tightened not only for the Chinese New Year but also in advance of the month of sensitive political anniversaries in March – the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising and the escape of the Dalai Lama from Tibet – and that restrictions on foreign tourism are likely at that time.

At Labrang (Chinese: Xiahe) in Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture) in Gansu province, a Tibetan source said: “It is something new to see leaders busying themselves by pushing people to set off fireworks while police and security personnel are checking whether people are involved in other activities. Some departments even distributed firecrackers for free to people and called on people to celebrate Amdo New Year lavishly and prominently to show that things are well.” In some areas of Amdo, village elders have been warned that if any unrest occurs during the New Year period, everyone in the village will be fined, according to one report.

One anonymous Tibetan blogger from this area wrote: “Thanks to the Party Committee of Xiahe County for issuing us firecrackers worth 100 Yuan ($14) so as to resist the public resentment of boycotting the New Year. I accepted those firecrackers, but never let my father know it, or he would ‘beat me to death’, so I threw them into the toilet. The county officials are busy supervising who else did not use the fire-crackers. They do have their own way of dealing with masses. Official supervision on whether or not people play the firecrackers, and the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] round the clock patrolling of the street, is a new scene in Xiahe this year.”

An official Xinhua report released yesterday sought to give the impression of a harmonious atmosphere in Lhasa for Chinese New Year “With sutra chanting resonating over the Jokhang Temple and smell of incense wafting in the air”. (Xinhua, January 26, 2009.)

Unprecedented expression of views on Losar

Numerous Tibetan bloggers posted their thoughts and views about marking Losar. A Tibetan in exile told ICT: “I have never seen this kind of outpouring emotions in my life.”

In a posting entitled “Let Us Make Lamp Offerings and Light Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Deceased”, the Tibetan writer Woeser wrote: “This year’s celebration [of Losar] will be different. This year’s differences are due to the fact that so many people have been plunged into the abyss of misery. In the land of Tibet, in the villages, pastures and towns of Amdo, central Tibet and Kham, many white-haired grandparents and parents had to endure the suffering of attending the funeral of young black-haired people. What is even more tragic is that some of these white-haired ones have not been able to attend the funeral services since the black-haired ones have disappeared without their corpses being able to be found. The family members do not know the day they died, thus, it is not even possible to hold the religious ceremony to release the soul of the deceased from purgatory suffering. The monasteries have already been closed, and monks expelled. There are countless vultures circling around over the desolate sky burial grounds.

“Then, let us light butter lamps to make offerings in memory of the deceased, whose exact number we still do not know, in the corners where the video surveillance can not reach. Furthermore, those of us who live in alien lands and do not have butter lamps to offer, let us light candles for those deceased whose exact number we still do not know.” (Article originally written for Radio Free Asia, translated by High Peaks, Pure Earth – January 14, 2009).

The website High Peaks, Pure Earth, which provides translations of two posts written entirely in verse in Tibetan about Losar, says that most Tibetan posts from inside Tibet “are opposed to the celebration of Losar this year. There are two points about Losar, the first issue is whether Tibetans should celebrate Chinese New Year or not and the second issue about whether it is appropriate or not to celebrate in light of last year’s events. Some of the posters argue that particularly in Amdo, that Chinese New Year has always been celebrated and this year is no exception. However, some netizens argue that all the Tibetans should institute a common Tibetan New Year and adopt the date celebrated in Lhasa.” (www.highpeakspureearth.com/2009/01/more-from-tibetan-bloggers-about.html).

An extract from one of the poems, posted by a blogger named Cha med sha (khyams me zhags) reads:

Last year was washed by blood,
In Lhasa, countless compatriots
Were fallen under a piercing arrow,
This year, no Losar for us,
In Sichuan, countless people
Buried under the earth,
This year, no Losar for us,

There is only the word ‘no’ on your lips.
We are speechless,
You are filled with anger
We have no bitterness

For the sake of the deceased valiant heroes
Let us offer our regrets.
For the deceased people,
Let us make offerings.

Another posting in verse, in Chinese language, on a Tibetan website, reads:

Don’t celebrate this New Year

What kind of joys would make me forget those who were killed
I thought of them again last night
My compatriots
Lying flat in the road
Covered with white sheets
A single hand suddenly fell out
And dangled before me
Oh, heaven is so crowded

One blogger refers to the contrast between Tibetan despair and the Chinese authorities’ decision to mark March 28 as “Serf Liberation Day”, saying: “The autonomous regional leaders are very busy: after the new year they’ll be urging people to celebrate ‘serf liberation day’. The old lady at work … although a distant relative of hers died in March last year, the Party still wants her to be happy, wants her to laugh, wants her to sing and dance about ‘Serf Liberation Day’ and how the great Party that liberated old Tibet and a million serfs from darkness. You can’t say anything contrary – nothing about the families that have been shattered, the many people who were killed, who were beaten to death for the sake of upholding the unification of the motherland and the unity of the masses – don’t mention those. As a people with a deep religious faith, when a family member dies prayers are said for them and new year isn’t celebrated – this is quite normal. But our great Party is not happy because when it wants you to be happy, you’re not happy. And that’s a problem with your thinking, and it can even be contrived into making you a member of some ‘clique’ or other. And so it requires you to be happy, and to happily celebrate the new year. The great Party pays close attention to happy or not happy, and celebrating or not celebrating the new year.”

Losar is a five-day festival marking the new year in the Tibetan calendar during which Tibetan families come together to reflect and celebrate the past year as well as look forward to the coming year. The movement within Tibet to abstain from celebrating the new year as a gesture of mourning for those who lost their lives is an unprecedented and highly significant statement, akin to people in the United States deciding to forego Thanksgiving, or indeed, akin to the people of China choosing not to mark the Spring Festival. Such a profound and concerted gesture among Tibetans within Tibet is an unmistakable indicator of the Tibetan people’s dissatisfaction with the Chinese authorities’ response to the wave of protests in March, and will inevitably be noted with some concern by the authorities in Lhasa and Beijing.

“Remember and memoralise louder than the gunfire”

In a posting on New Year’s Day (January 1, 2009), Woeser wrote: “On the eve of 2009, I received many text messages wishing me a prosperous and happy New Year and good fortune for the New Year. At this moment I knew that people from all over the world were heaping best wishes and blessings upon each other – a wonderful creation of human nature. But I would also add: in the New Year, I hope you will be free from want. In fact, to that I would even add, I hope that everyone will be free from fear! At this point we say farewell and forget the year 2008, but we should not be reconsidering the way we live our lives, instead we should remember and memorialize louder than the gunfire!” (Translation by High Peaks, Pure Earth).

Woeser is an unusually prominent and outspoken Tibetan writer and poet who despite being based in Beijing has come to be regarded as one of the most authoritative and respected voices on Tibet. Her prolific online writings and accounts of events in Tibet over the past several years have been instrumental in helping the international community to understand not only events on the ground in Tibet, but also to appreciate the broader human stories of what is happening there.

In a message to the Chinese people released on the occasion of the Chinese New Year, the Dalai Lama said that Hu Jintao’s concept of a “harmonious society” could only “come about through mutual trust, friendship and justice. It cannot be brought about by brute force and autocracy.” (www.tibet.net).

The official news agency Xinhua reported today that People’s Armed Police Political Commissar Yu Linxiang inspected armed police units on site in Qinghai, Sichuan and Jiangxi provinces and the Tibet Autonomous Region, while People’s Armed Police Commander Wu Shuangzhan talked with border police on guard “in remote Heilongjiang and Qinghai provinces and Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang and Tibet autonomous regions.” (January 26, 2009). Wu Shuangzhan is a member of the key Central Tibet Work Coordination Working Group, the first time the People’s Armed Police has been represented on the working group.

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