MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Today marks the beginning of the Tibetan New Year. But in the Tibetan areas of China many people are not celebrating; they're protesting with silence. In anticipation of these protests, China had sealed off the region and is moving ahead with celebrations of its own.
NPR's Louisa Lim slipped into one town, where protests erupted last year, and found a mood of quiet desperation.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
LOUISA LIM: This is the sound of resistance. At this moment last year at the stroke of midnight, the hillsides were ablaze with fireworks here in the town of Tongren, as people here marked Tibetan New Year. But this year, Tibetans here are boycotting their New Year to commemorate those who died or were detained after last year's protests; and this eerie silence speaks volumes.
Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)
(SOUNDBITE OF CONCH-SHELL TRUMPET)
LIM: We're not celebrating this year, says one monk as conch shells ring out for prayers. This mass boycott of New Year is a symbolic act of mourning. China says at least 19 people died in protest last year. The Tibetan Government in Exile puts the figure at 200.
Our hearts feel sad. People suffered so much, says one monk I'll call Zhaxi(ph). He was speaking in Tongren where monks held three separate protests last year.
ZHAXI: (Through translator) One night they arrested 250 monks here. They used wire to bind their wrists together. One was sentenced to death. Some got five years or 10 years in jail.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
LIM: Young monks chant verses. These monasteries at the center of the protests have been the target of patriotic education campaigns. During these, monks are forced to denounce their exiled leader, the Dalai Lama.
Today, everything seems calm. Although there is a police presence on the streets. But beneath the surface the tensions run deep. Zhaxi talks of undercover security agents disguised as monks stationed in the monasteries. And he talks of his hatred, not toward Chinese, he stresses, but towards the Communist Party.
ZHAXI: (Through translator) The government pressure on us is very high. We are too terrorized, so we become monks. At least we have a belief. It's not good to hate that much.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING)
LIM: In four monasteries I visited, pictures of the Dalai Lama were clearly displayed. This is a symbol of resistance to Chinese rule. The heightened security means protests are less likely this year. For one monk who I'll call Cerdan(ph), openly showing the Dalai Lama's picture has become a test of will.
CERDAN: (Through translator) Even if there are problems, we'll display his picture. Even if they kill us, we'll display it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)
LIM: China's countered this defiance on the refusal to celebrate New Year by holding its own party. State television staged a four-hour long gala, a song- and-dance spectacular, to mark Tibetan New Year.
Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking foreign language)
LIM: The Tibetans who carried the Olympic torch to the summit of Mount Everest last year even make an appearance, their voices shaky with pride and nerves. The torch relay, so controversial overseas, sparks feelings of patriotism among Chinese. Among Tibetans, it's a reminder of their colonization. That difference shows the gulf between Tibetans and their Chinese neighbors, a gulf which is ever wider following last year's protests.
On this topic, Mr. Wang's(ph) view is typical of many Chinese. He thinks Tibetans should be more grateful.
WANG: (Through translator) There are a lot of policies that favor Tibetans. But under the instigation of a minority, they want independence from this good country. They shouldn't do that.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
LIM: The sound of pilgrims spinning copper cylinders embossed with prayers, know as prayer wheels.
And in less than two weeks, another sensitive date looms: March the 10th, the 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising, after which the Dalai Lama fled into exile. But Tibetans here are looking further ahead.
What will happen when the Dalai Lama dies, one monk asked me? Then he answered his own question: The Chinese will pick the next one, he said. And then everything will be finished.
Louisa Lim, NPR News, Tongren, Qinghai Province, China.