Several hundred Tibetan monks and laypeople in the far eastern Tibetan area of Ngaba (Sichuan province) were surrounded by armed troops yesterday on the first of the five-day Tibetan New Year festival (Losar). The Tibetans had gathered together to pray for those killed in the crackdown following protests across Tibet that began in March 2008. At the same time, across the Tibetan plateau in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, Tibetans held somber and devotional commemorations amid tensions as security was stepped up, according to reports from inside Tibet. Thousands of Tibetans made traditional Losar offerings at the Jokhang temple, with crowds queuing in the Tibetan Barkhor area observed by plain clothes and uniformed armed security personnel. In a Tibetan New Year address yesterday in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama said: “We are not celebrating the New Year, Losar, in a very grand way; we are only performing the religious ceremony and rituals.”

Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), the Tibetan area of Amdo, is the scene of an unprovoked use of deadly police force against unarmed Tibetans. On March 16, 2008, at least 10 Tibetans – including a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Lhundup Tso – were shot dead when police opened fire on unarmed Tibetans who had joined a spontaneous protest following a morning prayer session at Kirti monastery.

A Tibetan source in exile who is in contact with Tibetans in Ngaba yesterday reported: “Several hundred Tibetans gathered with prayer wheels and rosaries to attend a vigil for the people who were killed in 2008. They wore old clothes and ate plain tsampa (a traditional Tibetan staple food of roast barley flour) and dry bread to show their sadness.”

Tibetans normally wear their best traditional clothes for Losar. But since the security crackdown from March 2008 onwards, many Tibetans have taken a position of not celebrating but marking Losar through devotional practice in order to commemorate Tibetans who have died, disappeared, or been imprisoned over the past two years.

Monk officials from Kirti monastery in Ngaba apparently ordered Kirti monks to disperse from the prayer vigil. The same source said: “The local people and some other monks from Ngaba remained to express their grief and solidarity. They chanted the Tibetan mantra, ”Om Mani Padme Hum,” the mantra of the Buddha of compassion, of whom the Dalai Lama is believed to be the incarnation. They were surrounded by military.” Soldiers confiscated mobile phones from Tibetans, in a likely effort to prevent images of the prayer vigil reaching the outside world as well as blocking communication between individuals. Tension remains high in Ngaba today, the second day of the Tibetan New Year.

The security crackdown in Ngaba has been particularly severe following the March 16, 2008 incident. Many more monks and laypeople have been detained, tortured or ‘disappeared’ since then, and during police raids on their monastery photographs of the Dalai Lama and senior religious leaders were destroyed. Last February, a Kirti monk in his mid-twenties was shot by security personnel when he set himself on fire as a form of protest after prayer ceremonies at the monastery were cancelled, according to several sources in the area. The monk, Tapey, had been holding a home-made Tibetan flag that had at its center a photograph of the Dalai Lama. His whereabouts is still not known. (ICT report, Monk in Tibet sets himself on fire; shot by police during protest). Just last week a former official in the Democratic Management Committee of Kirti monastery, Lhachak, was detained in Chengdu (Sichuan province).

Prior to last year’s Losar, Tibetan writer Woeser wrote: “This year’s celebration [of Losar] will be different. This year’s differences are due to the fact that so many people have been plunged into the abyss of misery. In the land of Tibet, in the villages, pastures and towns of Amdo, central Tibet and Kham, many white-haired grandparents and parents had to endure the suffering of attending the funeral of young black-haired people. What is even more tragic is that some of these white-haired ones have not been able to attend the funeral services since the black-haired ones have disappeared without their corpses being able to be found. The family members do not know the day they died, thus, it is not even possible to hold the religious ceremony to release the soul of the deceased from purgatory suffering. The monasteries have already been closed, and monks expelled. There are countless vultures circling around over the desolate sky burial grounds. Then, 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.” (Article originally written for Radio Free Asia, translated by High Peaks Pure Earth and posted online on January 14, 2009).