China increases surveillance, security in run-up to Tibetan New Year celebrations

Authorities warn they will take action against events that endanger national security.
By Sangyal Kunchok for RFA Tibetan
2023.02.21
China increases surveillance, security in run-up to Tibetan New Year celebrations A costumed Tibetan monk performs during a ceremony to chase away the 'demon king' to bring peace and happiness for the Tibetan New Year at the Yonghegong Lama Temple in Beijing, Feb. 19, 2023. However, in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, Chinese officials have imposed intense restrictions on residents, and security forces have ramped up surveillance, Tibetans say.
Associated Press

UPDATED at 6:52 P.M. EST on 02-21-2023

The Chinese government has imposed intense restrictions on residents of Tibet’s capital for the Tibetan New Year, with security forces ramping up surveillance and monitoring of residents and conducting random searches, Tibetans inside the region said.

Lhasa, the region’s administrative capital with a population of about 560,000 people, is the heart of New Year celebrations and pilgrimages in the western region. Tibetan Buddhists from other areas go there to visit and pray at significant religious sites such as the Potala Palace, Barkhor Street, Jokhang Temple and Norbulingka Palace.

Chinese authorities announced that the Tibetan New Year, known as Losar, will be celebrated on Feb. 20-26 this year. But they also warned against staging events that could endanger national security and said they would take immediate action against them. 

“Beginning in February, Chinese authorities started installing more surveillance cameras in Lhasa ahead of the start of Losar, citing unreasonable reasons such as for security,” said a Tibetan from the region, who like other sources in the story declined to be named so as to speak freely and without retribution by authorities. 

“Police are stationed every kilometer where [members of] the public are summoned for random searches, especially of their cell phones,” he told Radio Free Asia. 

China maintains a tight grip on Tibet, restricting Tibetans’ political activities and peaceful expression of cultural and religious identity. Tibetans frequently complain of discrimination and human rights abuses by Chinese authorities and policies they say are aimed at eradicating their national and cultural identity.

During Losar, Chinese security forces are usually deployed in large numbers in Tibetan-populated areas to monitor crowds gathered for religious festivals and to prevent possible protests during the run-up to a politically sensitive anniversary in March.

Tibetan Uprising Day is observed annually on March 10 to commemorate the 1959 Tibetan uprising, when tens of thousands of Tibetans took to the streets of Lhasa in protest against China’s invasion and occupation of their homeland a decade earlier. 

This March 14 also marks the 15th anniversary of a 2008 riot in Lhasa during which Chinese police suppressed peaceful Tibetan protests and led to the destruction of Han Chinese shops in the city and deadly attacks on Han Chinese residents. 

The event triggered a wave of Tibetan demonstrations against Chinese rule that spread into Tibetan-populated regions of western Chinese provinces. Security forces quelled the protests and detained, beat or shot hundreds of Tibetans.

The Chinese government has not only deployed police and military troops in Lhasa ahead of Losar, but also posted government officials dressed in civilian clothing to spy on Tibetans, another resident from the region said.

The police are probing every shop and restaurant under an ongoing campaign called ‘Security and Welfare by the Police,’” he told RFA. “And the Tibetans visiting Lhasa from other parts of Tibet who are staying in hotels and guesthouses are constantly investigated and harassed.” 

Chinese authorities issued a notification on Feb. 15 that Norbulingka, the traditional summer palace of successive Dalai Lamas, would be open to the public, though visitors would have to show their national identity cards and register their names, said Sangay Kyab, a Spain-based researcher at the Tibetan Center for Human Rights. 

“This is something that has never happened before, where people have to register their names and provide an identity card to visit Norbulinka for a pilgrimage,” he said. “So, this is a violation of religious freedom.” 

On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken extended well wishes to those celebrating the Tibetan New Year, including over 26,000 members of the Tibetan diaspora in the United States.

The United States reaffirms our commitment to supporting the preservation of Tibetans’ distinct cultural, linguistic, and religious heritage, including through the ability to select and venerate their religious leaders without interference, he said in a statement.

Translated by Tenzin Dickyi for RFA Tibetan. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Paul Eckert.

The story was updated with a comment from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

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