By Jagannath P. Panda*

Tibet and Tibetans, however, have to wait a little longer for their New Year celebrations. Popularly known as Losar, it is celebrated from the first to the third day of the first Tibetan month, which corresponds to February 22-24, 2012. This year will be known as Year of the Male Water Dragon.

Both the Chinese and Tibetans are known worldwide for their New Year celebrations, which involves family reunions, meeting friends, and conducting prayers. For the Tibetans, however, the celebration of their New Year has been a somewhat muted affair in recent years, with the Chinese government dampening the celebrations by sealing Tibet from the outside world and banning foreigners’ travel to Tibet during the period. This will be the fifth consecutive year of such a ban.

In 2011 the Chinese government imposed restrictions on foreigners’ travel by giving various clarifications and reasons. The People’s Daily, in a report titled ‘Tibet temporarily closes to protect foreign tourists’, clarified on March 8, 2011 that “Tibet is safe and stable”, but due to the bad weather conditions and limited accommodation facility, restrictions had been imposed.

Xinhua reported on March 7, 2011 that the temporary restrictions on foreigners’ travel to Tibet were primarily due to “cold winter weather, limited accommodation capacity and safety concerns”. Underlying these clarifications is the speculation that the Chinese authorities are worried about the Tibetan celebration and “religious activities”, which have been of great concern to Beijing.

The restrictions this year could be mainly because March 10 is the Tibet National Uprising Day; February 25 is planned to be celebrated as the festival of Monlam Prayers; and March 8 as the Butter Lamp Day. The Monlam Festival commemorates the Buddha and his sacred activities through prayers. The Butter Lamp Day is meant for meditation and mind-purifying process through prayers and devotion.

The Chinese look askance at these core Tibetan religious or cultural practices, which they see as mainly uniting the Tibetans to gather in groups and eventually lead to protest movements especially in the presence of foreigners.

Since the Tibetan protest broke out in March 2008 just before the Beijing Olympics, it has been a testing time for China. There has been a massive Chinese military presence in the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) since then to closely monitor Tibetan activities.

The PLA Daily reported on January 19, 2012 that just before the Chinese New Year celebration, an engineering regiment of the PLA, which is currently stationed in the TAR, conducted an operational activity. Beijing’s concern about the aspects of Tibetan religious celebrations in and outside Tibet is clearly evidenced in its official deliberations.

For example, the July 2011 White Paper ‘Sixty Years since Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ carries a special section about religious freedom in Tibet, noting that religious freedom is “respected and protected in Tibet”. Moreover, the core of this issue is reflected in Article 36 of the Chinese constitution, which states that “No one may make use of religion to engage in activities that disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens or interfere with the educational system of the state. Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The New Year celebration is an occasion when the world notices both the Chinese and the Tibetan cultural magnificence, but the Chinese have sought to highlight the Tibetan New Year celebrations as attuned to the Chinese culture. They also assert that the Tibetans have started acknowledging and respecting the Chinese New Year.

For example, Xinhua reported on March 22, 2011 that the TAR celebrated the Chinese New Year by putting up portraits of leaders ranging from Mao Zedong to Hu Jintao, which indicated their gratitude to these stalwarts of the Chinese Communist Party. It was also reported that the regional government in Tibet distributed more than a million national flags of China for display in the region. Not to exaggerate, a million national flags is perhaps more than the number of households the Tibetan Autonomous Region currently has.

The fact, however, is that there is little acceptance among the Tibetan community of the Chinese New Year. They have announced that they will not be celebrating their New Year, out of respect for Tibetans who have died through self-immolation to protest Chinese autocracy in Tibet. Sixteen Tibetans have been reported to have died from self-immolation in the last one year.

Fresh reports from the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) in Dharmasala in India suggest that during protests against the Chinese New Year celebrations, a Tibetan has been killed in the firing that Chinese security personnel resorted to in Drango, the Eastern part of Tibet.

The Tibetan Government-in-Exile in Dharamsala has been leading the decisions to keep the New Year celebrations at a low key. The decision has brought immense pressure on the Chinese government, which always looks for occasions to showcase to the world the peaceful conditions and preservation of the cultural magnificence of Tibet and Tibetans.

On previous occasions, the Communist Party of China sought to counter this kind of silent protest by distributing gifts and financial vouchers to many. In brief, the months of February and March are a period of apprehension in Tibet for the Chinese government. In general, the New Year tales narrate the grave battles through which the two cultures are trying to settle their political debate.

* *Dr. Jagannath P. Panda is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, and currently visiting as Carole Weinstein programme adjunct Faculty at the Department of Political Science, University of Richmond in Virginia. This article first appeared as IDSA comment on January 24, 2012 under the headline ‘The New Year Saga: China Dampens Tibetan’s Celebration’*.