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By Woeser, translated by High Peaks Pure Earth
Losar is almost upon us and, as we all know, Tibetans have very different feelings towards this year’s Losar. The concerned authorities took notice of this very early on. Party Secretary Zhang Qingli has repeatedly given the orders, saying “playing the first move of the chess well, and wage a war on one’s initiative well”. Various state media have attributed this “Not celebrating Losar” to the Tibetan Government in Exile and the Tibetan Youth Congress. In reality, “Not celebrating Losar” was first proposed by Tibetans in Tibet and originated out of spontaneous wishes. Nobody organized Tibetans “Not celebrating Losar”; nobody called on Tibetans “not to celebrate Losar”, no, no. However, the impact is tremendous, everyone is aware of this great ‘civil disobedience’ all over Tibet.
Some say that this kind of “civil disobedience” is only at a low-level, that it is merely not celebrating and nothing more. They maintain that it is a safe action which ends on the individual level, is short-term and does not entail much great risk. In fact, this is not true. Over the past year, the military might all over Tibet has been so great that all Tibetan areas have become prison-like. In today when you could even be arrested for listening to music, “not to celebrate Losar” has been regarded as a serious “separatist” activity, so much so that some Tibetans have been accused of spreading “not to celebrate Losar” rumours and been arrested. In fact, ‘civil disobedience’ in Tibetan areas is even more difficult to carry out than in other places, therefore any kind of result obtained is worth paying attention to.
The way this government treats Tibetans is inhuman. Any kind of Tibetan demands have been trampled on contemptuously. All Tibetan hopes have been shattered contemptuously. The Dalai Lama has not been able to return to his own homeland for fifty years. The Panchen Lama has been missing from the world for thirteen years. It has been ten years since the Karmapa left his home…there is also the wrongly imprisoned Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, how many elderly people in Kham called out his name as they breathed their last words, and they all died with the injustice unaddressed. Those locals haven’t been celebrating any festivals or holidays for the last few years…Many predictions have become an alarming reality, the thirteenth Dalai Lama once said: “Tibetan people will be stripped of their rights and property, and we will become the slaves of the invaders…” One of my monk friend’s 70 year old mother took to the streets last year to protest. Later, a working group went from door to door to investigate why they had participated in protest, were they not demanding “Tibetan Independence”? The old woman said: “Independence or no independence, I don’t know, neither do I understand it, but I know very well that we don’t have freedom, we don’t have rights, I took to the streets, and what I want is freedom and rights.”
And Tibetans have never stopped voicing their demands and protesting: major episodes of dissent occurred in 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989, 1999… and right up until last year when the scale of demonstrations shocked the world. Of course, the inhumanness of the authorities once again became reality: its response is still heavily armed military police, armoured vehicles and jails. It has always been nothing but “strike hard” campaigns. People who live under such state violence usually fear the violence, and they have to be silent because of their fear. It is a long-term silence and a silence in which people are leading a befuddled life. It is also a silence in which “people are deeply grateful”; and it is a silence in which they can only prostrate, hang up prayer flags and distribute lungtas (wind-horses)… This is not something one can not understand. But this time it is different.
A Tibetan went back to Lhasa from the west and after spending a short time very cautiously, he returned to the free world. He sent me a letter and said that when he went back before, he was always disappointed with what he found. He said people only talked about money or having fun. But this time when he went back he felt there was hope because it was totally different. I also have a Tibetan friend who went back to Amdo from a Chinese area. This friend visited cities and towns and villages and he was encouraged by everyone he met: everyone from government officials to herdsmen from his hometown. So he told me: “I have been surprised again. Last year Tibetans surprised everyone, and this year it’s the same. This is so great, we are of one mind. It gives people hope.”
What’s striking here is that these two friends independently expressed to me their hope. And this struck me as unusual. It reminded of a Czech intellectual who once commented on the relationship between the citizens and the unjust authorities: The more one acts like a slave and a servant, and is full of fear, the less seriously the authorities will take you. Only if you have them understand that injustice and despotism can not proceed without obstruction, will you have some hope that they will restrain themselves to some extent. People must forever keep their dignity, not to be scared of threat, not to servilely beg others, and only to tell the truth. In doing so, people can create a kind of pressure because all these are acutely set against the actions of the authorities.”
19th February, 2009, Beijing
From the International Campaign for Tibet:
An anonymous Tibetan blogger posted the following on a Chinese-language, Tibetan-run website recently:
“The 2009 Losar was always going to be unusual because so many people have been killed. In our family, our father can never come back, our mother has visibly aged, uncles and brothers have been detained—some of whom we still don’t whether they’re dead or alive. Last night, the eldest brother in the neighbor’s family was taken away…
“I myself will not be celebrating the new year because those who died were my compatriots, and I knew several of those who died—they were shot dead. I haven’t dared call home since March of last year because I don’t want to cause them any trouble. And so I don’t know how they are. I’ve had no information on them, and just hope they’re okay.”
In a posting entitled “Let Us Make Lamp Offerings and Light Candles to Commemorate the Souls of the Deceased,” the Tibetan writer Woeser wrote:
“…let us light butter lamps to make offerings in memory of the deceased, whose exact number we still do not know, in the corners where the video surveillance can not reach. Furthermore, those of us who live in alien lands and do not have butter lamps to offer, let us light candles for those deceased whose exact number we still do not know.”
It appeared to be a typical New Year in Rebkong county, a remote part of Qinghai province in western China where the countryside is dotted by Tibetan monasteries and white stupas.
At Gomar monastery, colourful prayer flags flapped in the wind and the faithful spun rows of large brass prayer wheels and tossed pieces of coloured paper squares from a tall stupa, sending countless prayers swirling into the sky. Meanwhile, a steady line of pilgrims carried out an exhausting circumambulation of the temple, prostrating their bodies fully across the ground after every three steps.
But not everyone was joyful. Losar, the Tibetan lunar new year, comes 11 months after unrest broke out in Tibetan areas of China last year, and despite government attempts to erase the memories, few families seem in the mood to celebrate.
Calls for a boycott of the Tibetan New Year began spreading months ago via blogs, mobile phone messages and word of mouth, travelling from Tibetan communities in Dharamshala, India, London and New York to rural villages and towns in western China. Some Tibetans celebrate the New Year according to the Chinese lunar calender, which began on Jan 26 this year, while others follow the Tibetan lunar calendar, which marks the first day of 2136, the year of the Earth Ox, on Feb 25.
The sense of fear is palpable in this area, which saw disputes break out between Muslims and Tibetans last February and then again in March. But those who are willing to talk essentially tell the same story.
“It wasn’t a joyous New Year,” said a Tibetan farmer standing in the courtyard of the Nyentog Temple, dressed in a black Tibetan robe with a red sash tied around his waist. “Last year was not a good one,” he said. He then slowly brought his two fists together to express his meaning before disappearing into the crowd.
“Few people celebrated the New Year this year,” said one outspoken monk, standing in the corner of another monastery. “A lot of young people were killed last year and people are sad. There is no feeling of happiness.”
A former monk who produces tankas, Tibetan religious scroll paintings, said most people chose to remember those who lost their lives in last year’s melee rather than mark the new year.
“We didn’t set off any fireworks, bathe, or put on our best clothing,” he said. “We didn’t sing, play music or dance. We didn’t put couplets on the doors. We normally give gifts at New Years, but we didn’t do that either.”
Woeser, a popular Tibetan writer, said the Chinese government is pressuring Tibetans to celebrate the holiday. “This is to give an impression to the outside world that Tibetan areas are calm and harmonious, and that people are happily celebrating.” She described how local cadres demanded farmers sign or put their fingerprint on a statement saying they will hold festivities.
In other areas, officials offered bribes and gifts and distributed fireworks, lanterns and couplets, more a part of the Chinese New Year than the Tibetan one.
Woeser said the government effort has been a failure, describing how some 2,000 Tibetans showed up at one temple wearing old and worn-out clothing, a clear sign of civil disobedience. Monlam Chenmo, the Great Prayer Festival, went ahead this year in Qinghai much as it has since it first started in 1409.
On Thursday at Gomar monastery, monks prepared for the traditional mask dance, donning their yellow hats and other elaborate accessories worn on special occasions. They played three-metre long horns, clanged large brass cymbals and beat drums. Crowds of Tibetans arrived continuously from the surrounding countryside, wearing elaborate costumes and silver jewellery embedded with turquoise and coral stones, watching as monks emerged from the temple, wearing demon-like masks as they performed their dance to exorcise ghosts.
The next day monks at the Nyentog Monastery held the Sunning of the Buddha ceremony, in which a massive tanka was shouldered to the mountainside by dozens of people, where it was unfurled down the mountain, exposing a huge image of the Buddha in the bright afternoon sun.
The call to cancel Losar celebrations kicked off an outpouring of comments on Tibetan blogs, with most expressing support.
A blogger named Lobsang, supported the boycott, arguing that Chinese injustices have not stopped.
“Why should we put on this fake smile on Losar? Why should we give the Chinese government the satisfaction of their decades of brutality on us by smiling and celebrating Losar as if nothing cruel has happened to us.”
Gelek Badheytsang opposed the idea in a commentary posted on the Tibet Talk blog, saying one way to resist Chinese oppression “is to be happy”.
“Happiness is a force that buckles the steely reins of dictators and seeps effortlessly through the shackles and cloaks of oppression,” he wrote, adding that by celebrating Losar every year, it “is a victory for a small nation of people numbering less than two per cent of China’s total population”.