When asked how his New Year celebrations have been, the pilgrim — a middle-aged businessman wearing a heavy winter coat against the bitter winds that knife through the monastery’s narrow alleys — immediately glances up and then over his shoulder. It is the universal, instinctive reaction of Tibetans I talked to on a recent trip to China’s far western province of Qinghai, where ethnic Tibetans make up the majority of the population in the areas closest to the Qinghai-Tibet border. “Cameras,” he hisses, nodding upward. “The police have them everywhere.”
Pulling me into the shadow of one of the deep doorways cut into the monastery’s thick walls, he launches into a tirade that reflects the feelings of most of the Tibetans I spoke to in the region, a group ranging from nomadic herdsmen to shopkeepers to students to monks. “We didn’t celebrate anything this year, because we have nothing to celebrate,” he says grimly. “We want to respect and commemorate the people who were killed last year,” when demonstrations against Chinese rule in Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which neighbors Qinghai, turned violent.
Beijing says 19 were killed, mostly innocent Chinese shopkeepers. Tibet’s government in exile, led by its spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, put the number at more than 200, mostly Tibetans. This businessman, like many of his compatriots, passionately insists that the real number is in the thousands. “We are a people living under the gun. They tried to make us celebrate the New Year, but we refused. They jail us if we display pictures of the Dalai Lama. They even force our children to study only in Chinese at school,” he tells me. “But we will never forget we are Tibetans and will always have the Dalai Lama in our hearts.” (See pictures of the March 2008 demonstrations in Tibet.)
To mark the anniversary, many Tibetans conducted a widespread campaign of civil disobedience this Lunar New Year against authorities in other heavily Tibetan areas of China, like Qinghai, where around half of the country’s 6 million ethnic Tibetans live. And with a probable boycott of Lunar New Year celebrations set to unfold inside Tibet, where the 15 days of festivities begin on Feb. 25 in accordance to the Tibetan lunar calendar, tension is likely to rise further. Even Chinese officials have said they can’t rule out an outbreak of trouble, blaming the Dalai Lama for fomenting unrest. Tensions could peak closer to March 14, when the bloody demonstrations started last year.
Tibetan exile groups are already reporting that 15 protesters have been arrested in recent days in the Tibetan-dominated town of Litang in Sichuan province. Chinese authorities have apparently decided that all Tibetan areas of China are now out of bounds to foreigners until at least April. This, combined with Beijing’s decision to keep out all but a handful of closely escorted foreign reporters (TIME’s applications to visit Lhasa have been repeatedly refused) out of Tibet since the protests last March, means that ethnically Tibetan areas of China are now effectively sealed off from the world. (Read TIME’s 2008 cover story by Pico Iyer about the Dalai Lama.)
If the sentiment in areas like Qinghai is anything to go by, further protests, arrests and possibly worse seem inevitable given the depth of anger among the Tibetan population. Most Tibetans here refused to undertake any of the public activities that usually mark the coming of the New Year. “There was no dancing or singing. No one let off fireworks, even though the Chinese gave people money to buy them,” says one young villager. He says the decision was not coordinated by outside forces (officials from Tibet’s government in exile have called for a boycott of the celebrations in interviews with the media) but is a spontaneous reflection of Tibetans’ anger over the deaths last March. “Everyone is still very sad and also very angry at the Chinese authorities for what happened. No one felt like celebrating.” (Read “A Conversation with the Dalai Lama.”)
Not surprisingly, the boycott has apparently angered Chinese authorities, who sources in exile allege have been engaged in a security crackdown code named Strike Hard since Jan. 18 in an attempt to head off trouble. “They have conducted house-to-house searches. They have military in plain clothes everywhere and snipers on the roofs,” says Tsewang Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth Council based in Dharamsala, India. According to one nomadic herdsman I meet at the Longwu monastery in Tongren, one of the most important outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, the attempt by the authorities to force celebrations — and the Tibetan resistance that has followed — has extended even into some remote areas. The 53-year-old, dressed in a traditional fleece-lined long coat and fingering his prayer beads, recounts how security forces came in January to his village in neighboring Gansu province and tried to enforce celebrations through a system of collective responsibility. “Ten days before New Year, the police came and divided us into groups of 20 families and put one or two people in charge. They were given a few thousand yuan and told they were responsible, that they would be punished if there were no celebrations,” he explains. “Later they came and arrested nine people who they said were ringleaders in the refusal campaign, even though they had nothing to do with it.”
Following the unrest last year, security forces arrested thousands of Tibetans on suspicion of involvement. Since then, the majority have been released, and life for Tibetans had seemed to be returning to normal. Some foreign tourists were even trickling into the region. But the coming months will provide a severe test of that relative calm. “It’s hard to predict what will happen,” says Rigzin. “But if they try to shove it down their throats and make Tibetans celebrate, that would not be good at all.” Even if this period passes quietly, the year ahead contains many more potentially explosive anniversaries for Tibetans. April will mark the 20th anniversary of the bloody 1989 suppression of anti-Chinese protests in Lhasa. Even more sensitive will be the 50th anniversary, in mid-March, of the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India after the so-called Lhasa uprising was suppressed by the People’s Liberation Army.
The herdsman shakes his grizzled head when I ask if it is possible that an influx of Chinese immigrants and modernization could mean that such events — and the protests of March 2008 — could eventually be forgotten. “What happened last year is now part of our history too. Even my son’s sons and their sons will remember after I die. They will hate the government too. We will never forget.”
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