Many Tibetans in Tibet boldly marked Tibetan New Year (Losar) at the March 5-6 weekend, in preference to Chinese New Year, despite official restrictions and an entrenched security presence. There is evidence that in some Tibetan areas Tibetans have begun to mark Losar again with more vigor as an expression of their cultural identity, despite official pressures otherwise.

The current political climate in Tibet is particularly tense in the build-up to the March 10 anniversary of the Tibetan National Uprising in 1959 – which is also the third anniversary of an unprecedented wave of overwhelmingly peaceful protests that swept across the Tibetan plateau, to be met by a brutal crackdown.

The Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) has been effectively closed to foreign tourists for the month of March. Chinese travel agents say they have been told not to receive foreign visitors around March 14, the third anniversary of when four days of peaceful protesting in Lhasa turned violent.

Celebrations in Amdo of Losar

In Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture (TAP) in Sichuan province (in the eastern Tibetan area of Amdo) many Tibetans ignored “official” celebrations of the New Year a month ago and set off fireworks and made incense offerings on Saturday (March 5), the first day of the Tibetan New Year. This was despite intense security in the area, where at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead during a protest in March, 2008, near the major monastery of Kirti.

Tibetans in Tibet celebrate New Year at different times, and in Amdo and some parts of Eastern Tibet, New Year is celebrated at the time of Chinese New Year. The authorities have sought to encourage this and to discourage spontaneous gatherings of Tibetans to celebrate the Tibetan New Year, Losar, particularly following the unrest from March, 2008. Some Tibetans feel that this results in the downgrading of Losar’s significance in favor of celebrations of the Chinese New Year. In 2009, some local authorities, including in Ngaba, sought to prevent any unsanctioned celebrations of Losar by ordering that Tibetan New Year celebrations should be brought forward by one month to coincide with Chinese New Year.

But there is evidence that in some parts of the Tibetan area of Amdo, Tibetans have begun to celebrate Losar again with more vigor, for instance in Chentsa (Chinese: Jianzha) county, Mahlo TAP, Qinghai province, an area where Tibetans have a strong sense of cultural identity, and where Chinese New Year celebrations were not taken as seriously as Losar this year.

A Tibetan source from Ngaba said this weekend: “Most regions of Amdo have their New Year one month earlier and hold many related festivities accordingly, but in Ngaba the annual incense offering was not made at that time, and there were not many fireworks, so that festivities appeared restrained. But on Saturday (the first day of Tibetan Losar according to the Tibetan calendar), most of the Tibetans in Ngaba, monks and villagers, performed the incense offering that traditionally marks the first day of the year, and the ceremonial drawing of the first water, and let off even more fireworks than for a normal new year’s day. There were fireworks on the hilltops and in the town streets, and lamp-lit gatherings of people, as if to demonstrate that today is the [real] Tibetan New Year, which seems to suggest that the earlier celebration of the New Year a month before had not been voluntary.”

Another Tibetan from Amdo who is in exile and in contact with Tibetans in the area said: “This year people celebrated Losar in many parts of Amdo, particularly monks in Rebkong (Chinese: Tongren, in Malho TAP, Qinghai) and Labrang (Chinese: Xiahe, in Gannan TAP, Gansu). This is because it represents a unique connection to unity between Tibetans in different areas of Tibet. The celebrations are not always in traditional style, but they are strongly Tibetan, for instance they are gathering friends together, wearing their best clothes, visiting local monasteries and burning incense.”

The significance of Losar

Losar is a five-day festival marking the new year in the Tibetan calendar during which Tibetan families come together to reflect and celebrate the past year as well as look forward to the coming year. Since 2008, Tibetans have chosen to express their feelings through the way in which they commemorate Losar. In 2009, a movement within Tibet to abstain from celebrating the new year as a gesture of mourning for those who lost their lives became an unprecedented and highly significant statement, akin to people in the United States deciding to forego Thanksgiving, or to the people of China choosing not to mark the Spring Festival.

This year, Tibetan bloggers have engaged in much discussion on the regional variations when it comes to celebrating Losar, as well as the conflict in celebrating Chinese New Year. In a blog written to mark Losar and translated by High Peaks Pure Earth, the Tibetan writer Woeser referred to the views of some young Tibetans “who believe that incorporating some customs of Chinese New Year into Tibetan people’s lives is not at all inappropriate.” (High Peaks, Pure Earth).

Tight security in build-up to March 10 with closure of Tibet, “Jasmine” protests

In Lhasa, security was tight over the Tibetan New Year, with government officials being told they were not allowed to go to monasteries at that time, according to one source in contact with Tibetans in the city.

Both Tibetan New Year and the effective ban on tourists to the region coincides with the heavy-handed response by the Chinese government to the “Jasmine (molihua) Revolution” of spontaneous gatherings of people in dozens of cities across China. Lhasa is on the list of 41 sites detailed in blog, Facebook and Sina Weibo/Twitter feeds by organizers of the peaceful movements for reform and free expresson in China, although it is not known whether any such gatherings have taken place there due to the tight security and choking off of communications.

The Jasmine Revolution gatherings, inspired by the uprisings and sweeping change across the Middle East and North Africa, are the latest push for democracy in a movement feared by authorities and have led to an intensified security crackdown in China, and the blocking of communications. Foreign journalists have been beaten up in Beijing, where tension is particularly high because of the meetings of the National Peoples Congress this week, which bring together the country’s most senior Party, state and regional leaders, including those from Tibet.

Bloggers in Tibet discuss Losar

In 2009, one year after the protests began on the March 10 anniversary, Tibetans marked the beginning of the New Year by ‘mourning’ and in somber reflection on the crackdown following the protests that swept across Tibet in 2008. Tibetans began to post blogs and comments about celebrations or commemoration of Tibetan New Year (Losar), and continue to do so in the blogosphere today.

In a post translated by High Peaks Pure Earth, which monitors and translates Tibetan blogposts, the Tibetan writer Woeser wrote from Beijing about reasons for the variations in commemorating Chinese and Tibetan New Year. She wrote:

“In the past few years, there has been a lively debate among Tibetans on the internet about the displacement of New Year’s celebrations. One of the opinions is that ‘the displacement of New Year’s celebrations in Amdo (Gansu, Qinghai) and Kham (Tibet) was caused by the historically, geographically and climatically transformed environment, but that the actual atmosphere of the celebrations has become more Tibetan.’ I have always believed that since we know that our New Year has been somewhat displaced, we should try to gradually replace it; yet, after engaging in profound discussions and thus gaining a more comprehensive understanding, I now think that it is not really a question of displacement and replacement, but whether the choices we make are imposed or natural.”

High Peaks Pure Earth also reported that this year many Tibetan bloggers are calling for unity and solidarity among Tibetans as well as expressing their sorrow at the impact of the crackdown. In one translation published by High Peaks Pure Earth, a Tibetan who identifies him or herself as “Dortse” writes the following poem:

“Losar, who inherits this sorrow?
Everyone says it is a joyful time.
But who has busted or emptied our home?
All those brothers and sisters who have passed away,
May their souls float on the top of the Potala this Losar?
When Losar comes, my heart is filled with sorrow.”

Another blogger wrote: “If in all parts of Tibet only one Losar is commonly celebrated, then it will help to have a common language and unity among us! So many good things will come out of it. So let us spread the benefits by celebrating a common Losar…” (High Peaks, Pure Earth, One Tibet, Many Tibetan New Years: Tibetan Bloggers Call for Unity).

In exile, the Dalai Lama has drawn attention to the courageous and peaceful actions of Tibetans in Tibet since March, 2008. In commemoration of the March 10 anniversary, Tibetans in exile gather every year at the main temple in Dharamsala, India. In the last two March 10 statements, the Dalai Lama has opened with a strong assertion of the inspiration provided by the conviction of young Tibetans in Tibet who have engaged in peaceful protest and expressions of their views. In his statement last year, the Dalai Lama said that it was “inspiring” that “a new generation of Tibetans continues to keep Tibet’s just cause alive.” He said that: “They have been able to keep up their courage and determination, preserve their compassionate culture and maintain their unique identity… I salute the courage of those Tibetans still enduring fear and oppression.”

The Dalai Lama will deliver his March 10, 2011 statement on Thursday at the Tsuglakhang Temple in Dharamsala, India, his home in exile.

March 10 anniversary details

The March 10 anniversary marks the day when tensions after the Chinese invasion of Tibet finally erupted in Lhasa in 1959. Thousands of Tibetans gathered outside the Dalai Lama’s summer palace, the Norbulingka, as rumors that the Chinese were planning to abduct him spread throughout Lhasa, which was teeming with pilgrims following the annual Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo). During the week that followed, demonstrations in support of the Dalai Lama and against Chinese rule escalated into a mass protest throughout the city. On March 17, 1959 the PLA started sporadic shelling of the city, and that evening the Dalai Lama escaped and began his flight into exile. On March 20, 1959 the PLA was ordered to re-take the city. After two days of fighting, the Chinese flag was hoisted above the Potala Palace. Both sides renounced the 17-point agreement. By March 28, 1959, which since 2009 the Chinese authorities have celebrated as “Serf Emancipation Day,” the Tibetan government was dissolved. Thousands of Tibetans had been killed, and thousands more followed the Dalai Lama into exile. (ICT report, A Great Mountain Burned by Fire: China’s Crackdown in Tibet).