Tibetans Celebrate New Year In Silence

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Wednesday is the start of the Tibetan New Year. Tibetans are boycotting it as a silent protest against Chinese rule. One year ago, there were deadly riots and protests against Chinese rule.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

These are apprehensive days in Tibet. One year ago there were deadly protests against Chinese rule. And another anniversary looms as well - the 50th anniversary of the exile of the Dalai Lama. Today is the Tibetan New Year and NPR's Louisa Lim has been traveling through Tibetan areas of China. And to find out what she's been seeing there, we got her on the line.

Good morning, Louisa.

LOUISA LIM: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So where are you now?

LIM: Well, I've just come back from Tongren, which is a town in Qinghai Province in northwestern China where monks staged protests on three occasions last year. And today is Tibetan New Year. But this year celebrations were canceled. Normally they light fireworks and wear new clothes, but none of that happened this year. And this unofficial boycott, it's really an act of solidarity to mourn those people who died in riots and protests last year. We don't know exactly how many died.

MONTAGNE: After those riots there was a major clamp-down by the Chinese. Are there any signs of that that you can see now?

LIM: Well, everything looks pretty calm on the surface. There is a police presence on the streets and you see a couple of paramilitary vehicles sort of cruising around. I did see five busloads of soldiers, about - almost 200 people traveling to the area. And we are getting reports of a large number of troops with riot protection gear entering other areas.

But it's very difficult to know exactly what is going on, because many of the Tibetan areas are closed off now. Tibet itself is now closed off to foreigners until April the 1st. And in fact when I was there, there was an attempt to close of Tongren, the place where I was. There was a police checkpoint on the road and foreigners being turned back and told not to enter.

So it does seem that there are security forces entering that area.

MONTAGNE: That monk that you just spoke of, what is the mood in the Buddhist monasteries that you've been visiting over the last few days?

LIM: Well, the monasteries are very quiet indeed. And it's a very sort of subdued mood. There's no obvious security presence there, but interestingly at two of the monasteries I went to monks told me that there were security forces stationed inside the monasteries disguised as monks. They said to me that the Chinese control of the area is invisible to outsiders, but to them it's tighter than it's ever been before.

But despite that, interestingly, at four monasteries I went to there were pictures of the Dalai Lama displayed quite openly, and this after a year when there's been a big patriotic education campaign in all the monasteries, where monks have been told to denounce the Dalai Lama. So that is a sign of the defiance and the sort of continuing anger against Chinese rule.

MONTAGNE: Well, a half century since the Dalai Lama fled Tibet. Do those pictures indicate how generally significant he and that time still is there?

LIM: Yes. It is extremely significant. I mean, despite all the Chinese attacks against the Dalai Lama, most Tibetans still see him as their leader. And I mean, we are approaching this extremely sensitive anniversary. March the 10th, 1959 was a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. And when this failed, he was forced to flee into exile, to India.

And last year the protests began actually on March the 10th. There was a small protest by monks in Lhasa marking that day. And that snowballed into widespread anti-Chinese protests across the Tibetan plateau. And the Chinese government is obviously worried that something like that could happen again, so that's why they're taking these measures that we've been seeing.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Louisa Lim. Thanks very much.

LIM: Thank you.

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