A week before the festivities would begin for the celebration of Losar, the Tibetan New Year which fell on Wednesday, Drolma's family drove into Lhasa from their small hometown for last-minute shopping and to meet with relatives.
As they approached the city, their car was stopped at a checkpoint manned by paramilitary troops. The passengers, all Tibetans, were made to alight. After checks of their identification cards and a thorough screening of their car, they were turned away. The regional capital, they were told, was “out of bounds”, and they'd have to wait until the new year was over to see their family.
“This was the first time that we have seen such security,” said Drolma, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, in an interview. “Every hundred metres, there is a checkpoint, and there are police everywhere. Even visiting temples, we now have to go through ID checks. The tension is very high.”
Much of the western Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) and Tibetan-inhabited areas in the provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai are under tight security, as the region prepares to mark the Tibetan New Year and the sensitive anniversary of the March 14, 2008 riots, which left at least 22 people killed in Lhasa and saw unrest across many western Tibetan towns.
The Chinese government has deployed additional security forces across the region and put in place tighter management of monasteries, reports in the State media have said, in the wake of a string of recent self-immolation protests, two clashes between Tibetans and police last month in Sichuan and reported protests in Qinghai.
The government has blamed overseas groups for the unrest, and said the measures were in response to “secessionists led by the Dalai Lama [who] appeared more determined to plot conspiracies this year.”
The security restrictions have made for a tense new year and dampened celebrations, according to half a dozen Tibetans from Lhasa and Sichuan who returned recently to Beijing to work from their hometowns, following last month's Chinese New Year holiday. They spoke to The Hindu on condition of anonymity, in fear of reprisal from the authorities.
Many Tibetans in Tibet, Sichuan and Qinghai have decided to not celebrate the new year as they traditionally do with family gatherings and fireworks, they said, out of respect for the at least 25 self-immolation protests — of which the government has confirmed 16 — by monks and nuns over the past year. The latest self-immolation protest came only on Friday, when a 40-year-old monk at the Bongtak monastery in Qinghai set himself on fire, overseas groups said.
While those that The Hindu interviewed all expressed sympathy with the monks, describing their acts as “brave” and “sacrifices”, they were of the view that the protests could ultimately be counterproductive, bringing in tighter security controls.
“Now, the Internet is blocked and we cannot send text messages,” said one Tibetan from a town near Lhasa. “It is like going back to 2008, which nobody wants.” Another Tibetan from Sichuan, who is working in Beijing, said: “After 2008, we could not travel, had difficulty in finding jobs and in Beijing not even allowed to rent apartments. I do not want to return to that situation.”
They were also critical of the government's response to the protests, which has largely been to impose security checks, place restrictions on travel and tighten management of monasteries. On the train from Lhasa to Beijing, several Tibetans said, the Tibetan passengers alone were singled out for identification checks.
Government officials warned this month of “a grave situation” in Tibet and were told to ready themselves for “a war against secessionist sabotage”. Officials have accused overseas groups and the exiled Dalai Lama, who is widely revered by Tibetans in China, of plotting the self-immolation protests to stir unrest and disrupt Tibet's development.
At Beijing's Yonghegong Lama Temple, a more than 300 year-old Tibetan Buddhist temple, Tibetans on Wednesday lit incense sticks and quietly made their rounds, in the company of dozens of Chinese Buddhists who had come to the temple for a ceremony to mark the New Year. The ceremony was being held, one monk said, to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year.