Inside Tibet: Tibetan New Year marked by security agenda; mass deployment of troops for prayer festival

The Chinese authorities used the Tibetan New Year (Losar) period last week, traditionally marked by devotional ceremonies, to focus on the security agenda of the Party state and warn of a continuing harsh fight against ‘separatism’, a politically charged term used to blame the Dalai Lama.

There was a major and intimidating deployment of military force at a prayer ceremony at Kumbum monastery, while in Lhasa regional leaders hosted a series of meetings in which monks and nuns were warned about the need to comply with Party policy, and – evidence of the strong Party and police presence in religious institutions – official delegations inspected ‘armed forces’ and cadres at Tibetan Buddhist monasteries.

In a series of official meetings and visits to military HQs over the last few weeks, ensuring ‘social stability’ and ‘fighting separatism’ were emphasized as the main tasks of the Party authorities in the year of the 19th Party Congress in Beijing, when Xi Jinping is expected to consolidate his power. Although the Dalai Lama was not overtly mentioned by regional leaders, the authorities seek to justify oppressive security measures in Tibet by ascribing blame to the Tibetan leader in exile and “foreign hostile forces” for “inciting separatism”, particularly since peaceful protests swept across Tibet in 2008 and a wave of self-immolations began in 2009.

The 19th Party Congress as a keynote date has been referenced in various official meetings in Tibet since the beginning of the year[1] and during visits by TAR leaders to military bases in the buildup to the sensitive Tibetan New Year period,[2] which is closely followed by the anniversary this week of the March 10 Uprising in 1959 and the protests of 2008. ‘Stability’ is a political term emphasized by China’s leader Xi Jinping, involving a broad and deep expansion of the powers of military and police backed by grass roots propaganda work and electronic surveillance.

Party officials equate political ‘stability’ in the TAR with the security of the entire PRC, partly because Tibet is an important border area. During the Sixth Work Forum on Tibet in Beijing in August 2015, Party Secretary and President Xi Jinping referred to its critical importance to the authorities of the TAR, saying that “in administering border regions”, “we must first of all stabilize Tibet”.[3]

At a New Year reception on February 27[4] (below) for monks, nuns and Party cadres based at monasteries across the Tibet Autonomous Region, Party Secretary Wu Yingjie highlighted the dangers for monks and nuns in a political climate in which it is clear that Tibet policy is a matter of prominent concern at the highest levels of the CCP, with the authorities regarding their struggle against the Dalai Lama as a protracted, long-term campaign. Wu Yingjie said: “The majority of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns will be able to make the distinction between issues of right or wrong, and take a clear-cut stand to oppose separatist sabotage, and guide the broad masses of believers to consciously maintain social harmony and stability and national unity in order to make a new contribution to the 19th Party Congress in 2017.”[5]

Party Secretary Wu underlined the political message further in a visit to the headquarters of the regional Public Security Bureau, referring to the significance of “ensuring social stability” to “welcome the Tibetan New Year”.[6]

The Chinese government’s ‘stability’ drive in the TAR is particularly focused on eliminating possibilities of dissent or unrest at the cultural and historic monastic centers in Lhasa and beyond, in line with the official position that religion is a cause of ‘instability’ that has to be ‘managed’ by the Party state.

The Chinese state media referred in a number of reports to the paramilitary presence at these monasteries. Before the New Year, for instance, Commander in Chief of Lhasa City Military Corps Pema Wangdue visited armed forces personnel at both checkpoints and in Tibetan monasteries prior to the New Year on January 22 (2017) in order to convey the importance of security work.[7]

Several days later, a work group led by Xi Xueguang, Deputy Chair of the Regional People’s Congress Standing Committee, visited “Democratic Management Committee [members], cadres, police officers and fire police officers and armed troops and police stationed in Drepung monastery”[8], which is one of the great Tibetan Buddhist seats. According to a report of the visit published in the official media on January 27, the work group urged cadres, troops and armed police stationed in monasteries to study Xi Jinping’s speeches “during the Tibetan New Year in order to achieve sustained stability, long-term stability and overall stability in Tibet Autonomous Region”.

In a visit to Shigatse (Chinese: Rigaze), Deputy Governor of the TAR He Wenhao also urged monks and management committees at monasteries to study Xi Jinping’s statements.[9] ICT monitored around a dozen official ‘Losar’ meetings involving villagers, Party cadres, monks, nuns and officials with a message of the importance of ‘stability’ in the 19th Party Congress year, and a number of video and teleconferences on the same theme.

The Chinese state media also published a New Year message from Gyaltsen Norbu, who was installed by the government as the Chinese Panchen Lama and who is not accepted by most Tibetans as such.[10] The Chinese Panchen stated that Buddhists “should live to do good deeds and concentrate on studying Buddhist dharma”, a path that is increasingly endangered by the authorities’ emphasis on a security agenda and lack of access to proper religious education and teachers in Tibet.

Consistent with the emphasis on security, in Lhasa just before the New Year, the state media announced that to “boost combat capability”, specially-trained police dogs would be deployed for the first time to patrol the streets of Lhasa from February 16-22.[11] Lhasa is closed to tourists at this tense anniversary period.[12]

(Photo: Chinanews.com)

Troops deployed at Kumbum during peaceful prayer ceremony

New images and footage circulated on social media of the deployment of hundreds of armed troops outside the prominent Kumbum monastery in Qinghai during a Buddhist prayer ceremony prior to the New Year.


The troops were deployed at Kumbum on February 11 during the Monlam Chenmo (Great Prayer Festival) that has become an annual and intimidating display of force in recent years, intended as a visual demonstration of the CCP’s dominance over religious life.
The peaceful gathering of pilgrims for Monlam Chenmo despite the massed ranks of Chinese police and units of the People’s Armed Police was nevertheless testimony to Tibetan resilience and determination to express their religious identity.

China announces opening of second largest airport near Indian border

In the same week as China voiced its complaints about an upcoming visit by the Dalai Lama to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh in April (2017) the state media announced the opening of the second largest airport terminal in Tibet close to the Indian border. The new airport in Nyingtri (or Kongpo, Chinese: Linzhi) in the Tibet Autonomous Region is located close to the border with Arunachal Pradesh, which the Chinese authorities claim as ‘south Tibet’ and part of the PRC.

Last week, it was widely reported in the Indian press that the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs stated that Beijing was “gravely concerned” about a planned visit of the Dalai Lama to the northeastern Indian state in April. Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a press briefing on March 3 that it will cause “serious damage” to Sino-India ties, saying that: “China is strongly opposed to Dalai visiting disputed areas.”[13]

According to the state media, Nyingtri airport will open new air routes to Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, resume routes to Beijing and increase more round trip flights to Lhasa, Guangzhou, Kunming, Chongqing and Shenzhen. (Xinhua in English, March 7, 2017). It will likely have a dual civilian and military use consistent with other airports in Tibet, given both the boom in tourism and the Chinese authorities’ security concerns particularly in its border areas.

The Chinese state media announced the beginning of construction of a new rail link to Nyingtri in 2014, as part of the extension of China’s rail network into central Tibet, which China describes as ‘the south-western frontier of the motherland’, underlining the Chinese leadership’s priorities of maintaining control in Tibet and expanding the CCP’s influence in the region. The rapid expansion of infrastructure so close to the border has raised alarm in India with implications for regional security being raised by commentators in India and South Asia.[14]


Footnotes:
[1] Particularly as officials convened in Lhasa for the 10th Regional People’s Congress in January. For instance, see this report in Chinese: http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-01/12/content_745854.htm

[2] This year Tibetan New Year fell on February 27.

[3] Xinhua, August 25, 2015. This report, at http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2015-08/25/c_1116370428.htm (in Chinese) appears to be the most substantive account of Xi Jinping’s comments to the Forum.

[4] The first day of Losar this year.

[5] The report was front page news at: http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-02/27/content_753606.htm

[6] Wu Yingjie also referred to the upcoming 19th Party Congress at this meeting too, stating that: “At all levels of the Party organs and governmental departments must be vigilant […] and must not give any chance to separatist and hostile forces for destructive actions which undermine the social harmony and stability in Tibet.” Translation from the Chinese by ICT, http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-01/27/content_748587.htm

[7] State media report in Chinese on January 23, 2017, http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-01/23/content_747778.htm

[8] Published in the official media on January 27 (2017) at: http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-01/27/content_748599.htm

[9] Details of the visit on January 31 (2017) were published in the state media on February 2 at http://epaper.chinatibetnews.com/xzrb/html/2017-02/01/content_748882.htm

[10] China Tibet Online (in English), February 28, 2017

[11] The article stated that the police dogs “will patrol Potala Palace Square, Jokhang Temple Square, Barkhor Street, areas around Kundeling, Lhasa Railway Station and downtown streets and areas with police officers.” Posted on February 24, 2017, http://eng.tibet.cn/life/news/1487904881587.shtml

[12] ICT statement, https://www.savetibet.org/tibet-locked-down-and-travellers-banned-during-sensitive-anniversary/

[13] Expert commentator Claude Arpi writes about controversy in the Indian press recently over the Arunachal Pradesh issue in a blog posted on March 4: http://claudearpi.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/china-wins-propaganda-war.html. Also see Claude Arpi’s blogpost on February 24, 2017, http://claudearpi.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/a-train-to-chumbi-valley.html

[14] ICT report, November 12, 2014, https://www.savetibet.org/new-strategic-rail-network-to-tibets-borders-endangers-environment-raises-regional-security-concerns/

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