By Bryan McKenzie
Charlottesville (Virginia): A foreign force occupies their homeland, thousands of their countrymen are jailed or missing and relatives are afraid to talk in coffee shops lest undercover agents overhear them and arrest them for wrong thoughts.
It’s been a rough year for Charlottesville’s Tibetan community, which watched in shock as anti-Chinese occupation protests and the Chinese government’s subsequent political crackdown wracked their home country. It was so bad that many Tibetans in town and across the world are foregoing upcoming Tibetan New Year celebrations.
‘Big holiday’ dashed
“During those protests more than 200 Tibetans were killed and thousands jailed and another thousand just disappeared,” said Lobsang, secretary of the Tibetan Association of Charlottesville. Like many Tibetans, he uses only one name. “New Year is a big holiday in our lives — like Christmas is here — but because of all that’s happened in Tibet in the last year, the New Year is not being celebrated.”
The New Year, called Losar, will still come. The calendar will still click to 2136. It will not, however, bring the joy and verve and all-out party atmosphere that made the holiday, which this year falls on Feb. 25, a multi-day affair with feasts and merriment. This year, folks are planning prayer meetings and memorial services.
The idea started in Tibet, where people just didn’t feel like a big celebration. The idea gained gravitas through the Tibetan exile community and recently received backing from the government-in-exile. It’s part protest and part natural reaction to a year of harsh times.
“When people are celebrating Losar in a good year, the whole family celebrates and everyone is happy. When a family has much misfortune during a year, it is natural that the family’s celebration is somber in remembering what happened,” said Rabten, the association’s vice president. “The Tibetan community is much like an extended family, and the impact of the sad events last year has affected so many of us. It’s natural to not celebrate, but to remember.”
According to a variety of news sources and Internet sites, that natural response doesn’t necessarily make the Chinese government too happy. Many Chinese travel sites hawk Losar celebrations as a tourism must-see. Suddenly somber celebrations, it seems, are bad for business and public relations.
Riot police patrols
So are protests. Some reputable news agencies claim Chinese riot police are patrolling streets in Tibetan cities in case of public displays of nationalism and arresting those who are seen as potentially troublesome. At the same time, reports have Chinese officials trying to get folks to party hardy instead of hardly partying.
Public image plays its role. For the Chinese, a hardy celebration would be good publicity, making it appear as though Tibetans are happy. For Tibetans, a somber day would attract attention to the Chinese occupation.
“It would let the world know. The idea is to stand up for freedom and to tell the truth,” said Rabten.
Lobsang, however, said the pray-and-remember effort isn’t about politics, even if it has political impact.
“This comes from the people. We are not being told to do this by any government,” Lobsang said. “It’s from the heart and it’s supported by the Tibetan communities across the world.”