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Xiahe, China – Only a handful of pilgrims gathered here last weekend at the historic Labrang monastery, normally bustling before the Tibetan New Year.
“There was a war in Lhasa this year. Lots of Tibetans were killed,” one resident murmured, referring to protests last March against Chinese rule that broke out in the Tibetan capital and spread to other cities in western China, including Xiahe. The unrest was the largest and most sustained in decades.
“There is no new year festival for us,” the woman said.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, called this week on Tibetans to skip festivities surrounding the new year, which begins Wednesday, saying they would be inappropriate after the Chinese government’s heavy-handed crackdown on the protests. Tibetans across the region say they are still in mourning.
The Dalai Lama also denounced Chinese-backed celebration plans as “provocations.”
Adding to the tension – and authorities’ tightening grip on large swathes of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces with sizable Tibetan communities – is the approaching 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising on March 10.
In March 1959, the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India as Chinese troops attacked Tibet and brought it directly under Communist rule.
Emotions have simmered since then over China’s claims that Tibet has always been part of its territory and its efforts to develop the area benefit the local people. Many Tibetans, however, say the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries and that Beijing’s tight control is draining them of their identity.
The Chinese government says 22 people died in last year’s protests to commemorate the 1959 uprising, but Tibetan rights advocates say many more were killed, and that monks, nuns and villagers were beaten, fined or jailed. State media say 76 people have been sentenced and more than 950 detained.
“This has not been a good year for the Tibetan people,” said a sun-wrinkled woman in the town of Zhuoni in Gansu province. “No mass gatherings are allowed, people have been caught, things have been very strained.”
She added worriedly, “Am I allowed to say this?”
Last week, a Communist Party official in Tibet warned Buddhist clergy against political activity ahead of this year’s anniversary.
The Dalai Lama’s message Tuesday called on Tibetans to skip the new year’s festivities and instead dedicate good deeds to victims of the uprising.
“Since (Tibetans) faced immense difficulties and sufferings, the occasion of this new year is certainly not a period when we can have the usual celebrations and gaiety,” he said.
State television has shown footage of dancers in bright, traditional Tibetan garb performing under clear skies as the audience – with crimson-robed monks in the front row – applauded. Women paraded with trays of dumplings and fruit as red lanterns with the Chinese character for “prosperity” bobbed in the breeze.
“The atmosphere welcoming the new year is deepening,” a Chinese state television anchor said earlier this week. “Everyone is praising their happy lives.”
A posting on government-run ChinaTibetNews.com described how leaders of the local armed police visited monks at Drepung monastery in Lhasa “to celebrate the holiday with them.”
“High-profile celebration of the new year is part of this strategy to show to the Tibetans, Chinese and the world that everything is normal in China’s Tibet,” said Dibyesh Anand, a Tibet expert at London’s Westminster University.
Anand said the subdued new year is a way to act in solidarity with Tibetans living abroad who are waging a campaign to boycott celebrations.
“Contrary to what the Chinese government has been saying, Tibetans in many parts of China remain restive,” he added.
Last week, Tibetan rights groups said, a Buddhist monk shouted slogans outside a market in Lithang in Sichuan province, calling on people to boycott the Tibetan new year and praising the Dalai Lama. Hundreds of people gathered.
Paramilitary forces swooped in on the protest, and more than 20 people were detained and several were badly beaten, the rights groups said. They said a protest the next day drew up to 400 people, prompting troops to attack and detain more than a dozen. The reports could not be independently verified.
“Social order is good, and the relevant people in Tibet are celebrating the new year,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu told reporters Tuesday. “Tibet will make constant progress in the big family of the motherland. We’re fully confident in the future of Tibet.”
Associated Press
Associated Press writer Audra Ang reported from Beijing.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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