Authorities in Tibetan areas of China are restricting travel and public gatherings during the Lunar New Year period, called Losar in Tibetan, with punishments threatened for those violating the bans, Tibetan sources say.
Falling this year on Feb. 12, the first three days of the New Year are usually packed with festivals and religious ceremonies, with most Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet’s regional capital Lhasa visiting temples during the holiday.
Major religious sites in Lhasa including the Potala Palace and Drepung and Sera monasteries are now shuttered, though, with authorities citing coronavirus concerns as the reason they were closed, sources in Lhasa say.
“I wanted to celebrate Losar openly,” one Lhasa resident told RFA’s Tibetan Service, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But then due to harassment and restrictions put in place by the Chinese authorities, I don’t feel like celebrating at all.”
Traditional Losar activities such as horse racing and other cultural activities have also been banned by Chinese authorities, a resident of Tibet’s Chamdo prefecture said, adding, “We are not even allowed to hold small gatherings indoors.”
Tibetans are also barred from holding social gatherings and visits to monasteries and temples during Losar in Nyagrong (in Chinese, Xinlong) county in Sichuan’s Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a county resident said.
“Anyone found violating these restrictions will be punished,” he said.
“The local authorities held a meeting before Losar and told us we had to stay at home during the New Year,” added a resident of Sichuan’s Lithang (Litang) county. “We are not allowed to hold gatherings or even to go outside,” he added.
Qinghai province’s Kumbum monastery was meanwhile closed until the third day of Losar, with the sale of visitors’ tickets ended two days ahead of the start of the holiday, effectively blocking pilgrims’ participation in the monastery’s scheduled ceremonies, local sources told RFA.
Many Tibetans were not aware of the notice limiting hours of access, which was issued by monastery managers citing the need to control the spread of COVID-19, one source said. “So Tibetans who came to visit the monastery from far away ended up staying in nearby hotels, waiting for the monastery to reopen.”
Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and Tibetan-populated provinces of western China have frequently become the focus of efforts to promote not just religion but Tibetan cultural values, and Chinese security forces often monitor and sometimes close down events involving large crowds.
United States pledges support
The U.S. State Department In a show of support for Tibetans’ cultural freedoms held a virtual celebration of the Losar holiday on Feb. 12, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledging the commitment of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to “preserving, protecting and honoring the Tibetans’ linguistic, religious and cultural heritage.”
“We look forward to celebrating this tradition with you during Losar and on many other occasions for years to come,” Blinken said.
Lisa Peterson—Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor—said the United States “will continue to work with our partners and allies to press the People’s Republic of China to grant meaningful autonomy to Tibetans, respect their human rights, and preserve Tibet’s environment as well as its rich historical, cultural, and religious traditions.”
“We will not tolerate the Chinese government’s relentless assault on the dignity and human rights of Tibetans and other minority groups,” Peterson said.
Also speaking at the virtual celebration, Ngodup Tsering—representative in Washington D.C. of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama—thanked the State Department for its hosting of the event, adding, “Although Losar is an occasion for celebration, I cannot help but think of our brothers and sisters who continue to suffer in Tibet.”
Chinese forced-labor programs, policies marginalizing the Tibetan language, and the Sinicization of Tibetan religion are “aimed at nothing but the total assimilation and elimination of Tibetan identity,” Tsering said.
“But the Chinese Communist Party will not succeed, as the Tibetans will not let them succeed,” he said.
A formerly independent nation, Tibet was invaded and incorporated into China by force nearly 70 years ago, and the Dalai Lama and thousands of his followers fled into exile in India and other countries around the world following a failed 1959 national uprising against Chinese rule.
Chinese authorities maintain a tight grip on the region, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of cultural and religious identity, and subjecting Tibetans to persecution, torture, imprisonment, and extrajudicial killings.
Reported by Lobsang Choephel and Taklha Gyal for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Richard Finney.