As the Chinese New Year approaches, so does the Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, but Tibetans will not be celebrating the holiday as widely as their Chinese counterparts. In fact, 2013 is the fifth year that Tibetans have held quiet festivities or none at all, in memory of those like Tibetan writer Gudrup who have self-immolated in protest for greater freedoms and the return of the Dalai Lama. This year, the elected head of Tibet’s government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, once again called on Tibetans worldwide to mark Losar with prayers instead of festivities.
Last year, Chinese authorities were reported to have bribed and coerced Tibetans into celebrating Losar, in an attempt to dispel the appearance of ethnic tension and unrest. With the Lunar New Year just days away, many Chinese have been struggling to return home due to train ticket shortages and other infrastructure inadequacies. Meanwhile many Tibetans are prevented from traveling for very different reasons. Authorities have implemented restrictions on both foreign and domestic travel for Tibetans, withholding passports and preventing Tibetans from elsewhere in the country from visiting Lhasa without special documentation.
Ongoing tensions and restrictions continue to impact how Tibetans celebrate the New Year. Kunga Tashi, Representative of H.H. the Dalai Lama to the Americas, wrote in two separate tweets, “Everyone is aware that since 2008, Tibetans inside China have been carrying out peaceful protests, which have been bloodily suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party authorities. Since 2009, almost one hundred Tibetans inside China have self-immolated, and celebrations of the New Year have lost their flavor; no one feels like dancing and singing happily anymore. This year is no exception.”
China’s state-run media, however, has reported that self-immolations in Tibet are part of a conspiracy to undermine the government, arguing that the act has been romanticized by organizations with ulterior motives. The government has blamed “outside groups,” for incitement, including Voice of America, and has arrested 70 people inside the Mainland in connection with previous self-immolations. Recently, Xinhua, China’s largest state-run media organization, has begun publishing supposed personal accounts of Tibetans who have attempted to self-immolate due to coercion from the Tibetan government-in-exile.
State-run media has also traditionally reported that self-immolators are criminals, outcasts, or mentally ill. Most recently, Xinhua reported an investigation showed that Tibetan Sangdag Tsering, who self-immolated November 17, 2012, cheated on her husband with multiple men and committed suicide when she was unable to face the consequences.
Such coverage has incensed Tibetan activists like writer Woeser, who tweeted, “There are no journalists so lacking in conscience as those of Xinhua.” While Xinhua ran articles in English and Chinese about Tibetans gearing up to celebrate Losar, searches for the term “Losar” in Chinese were blocked on both Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, and Baidu, China’s largest search engine. The soft-power spin of Xinhua’s Tibet coverage exists side by side with outright censorship of Tibetan voices, enforced identity and forced silence.
It remains to be seen whether Tibetans’ continued protests will encourage China’s new leadership to reexamine its Tibet policy, or result in harsher restrictions as in years past. Whatever the future holds, many Tibetans will mark Losar with voluntary silence, lighting candles and burning incense in memory of those who will not live to see either future.