TONGREN, China — Scratch only a little bit, and Dorje, a Tibetan nomad, lets loose with a tirade at the people he simply calls "the Chinese," the majority Han who he says will get no respite from Tibetan frustration this year — or for generations.
"After I die," the 53-year-old grizzled herder says, "my sons and grandsons will remember. They will hate the government."
On the cusp of the first anniversary of a mass revolt on the Tibetan Plateau that marked the worst ethnic unrest in China in nearly two decades, many Tibetans still seethe at living under China's thumb. Some engage in small-scale civil disobedience. Others, including monks, brazenly display photographs of the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader they revere as a God-king but that China maligns as a "beast." Nearly all gripe about a lack of religious and political freedom.
Another imminent anniversary date adds to the sensitivity of the Tibet issue. March 10 marks 50 years since the Dalai Lama fled across the Himalayas to exile in India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule. Fearful of a spasm of new unrest, Beijing has closed off many ethnic Tibetan areas to journalists and made scattered arrests of organizers of resistance campaigns.
Tibetan monks, nomads and students interviewed recently by McClatchy said ethnic tensions have deepened in this eastern region of Qinghai province, which still remains open to reporters.
More than 1,200 miles separate this mountain town from Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Ethnic Tibetans still predominate in this region, though, and two of the six most important Tibetan monasteries are in the dry, arid mountains that rise at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
At the Kumbum Monastery, which once housed 4,000 monks but is down to 800 today, a 29-year-old monk said Tibetans were defying China by refusing to celebrate the Lunar New Year, which Han Chinese celebrated on Jan. 26 and many Tibetans celebrate under a different calendar system on Feb. 25-27.
"How could there be celebrations? Last year, they shot so many of us," said the monk, who is not being identified to avoid reprisals against him. "Tibetan people are trying to stand up for ourselves by not celebrating."
Authorities in Beijing say rioters killed at least 20 people, including two police officers, during the March 14 riots, while Tibetan exile groups say as many as 200 people died, mostly Tibetan. The dueling versions underscore the dramatic gap in perceptions between the two sides.
China is eager to portray ethnic Tibetan regions as stable. Residents here said that local officials have handed out money so that Tibetans can buy fireworks for New Year festivities even as they arrest those urging a boycott of celebrations, seeing it as a loss of face.
Beijing says last year's revolt justifies shutting the doors on Tibetan regions.
"Since the March 14 incident, it's true that foreign journalists find it harder to go to Tibet. I think you all know the reasons," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Feb. 12. "The government has taken some measures. The purpose is to safeguard stability in Tibet."
Barry V. Sautman, a scholar of contemporary Tibetan politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said some new demonstrations are likely this year.
"It's almost inevitable given the fact that there are monasteries and nunneries scattered about that there be demonstrations. The police can only be stretched so far in that vast area," Sautman said. "After all, the Tibetan Plateau is as large as Western and Central Europe."
Another scholar said that despite some economic incentives to placate Tibetans, especially those holding bureaucratic jobs, anger in Tibetan regions is not diminishing.
"One could argue that resentment has increased given the harsh crackdown on the Chinese side with the police, and the midnight arrests," said Lobsang Sangay, a senior fellow at Harvard Law School. "A future uprising is inevitable."
Sautman said that China's refusal to permit the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet after five decades is among the crucial issues that unite Tibetans in anger.
The Dalai Lama, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, which was a year of intense anti-Chinese rioting in Tibet, warned last week in Germany that frustrations are rising again in Tibet.
"Today there is too much anger . . . The situation is very tense," the 73-year-old spiritual leader told journalists during a visit to the German spa town of Baden Baden, according to the Agence France-Presse news agency. "It is so tense that the Chinese military have their hands on the trigger when they carry weapons."
Squads of People's Armed Police jog daily through the streets of Tongren before dawn.
"There are so many of them," said a monk at another monastery in the Tongren area. "You don't see them because they are in their barracks. But if something happened, they'd be here in a second."
China sees the monasteries as hotbeds of dissent, and in the past year has ordered all Tibetan monks to attend "re-education" sessions on China's policies.
"We have to attend patriotic education sessions once a week where they vilify the Dalai Lama," one monk said. "They've got cameras everywhere watching us."
Another monk suggested that China contravenes its own laws by arresting Tibetans for expressing their religious support for the Dalai Lama.
"People protest in Hong Kong and they don't get shot," he said, adding monks think the police now use facial recognition software to identify any one who protests in the streets.
No political solution to the Tibet crisis appears in the offing. Talks between the two sides sputtered to a halt in November after eight rounds of formal negotiations that began in 2002.
Despair and powerlessness are the common sentiments among many Tibetans here. A Tibetan layperson interrupted a circumambulation of a Buddhist shrine to speak to foreigners.
"It would take days for me to explain to you how tough our lives are here," he said.
Dorje, the nomad, said nine villagers in his community were arrested in recent weeks for allegedly rousing Tibetans to boycott New Year celebrations, leaving others simmering.
The police who came, he said, warned designated village leader that if they allowed any protest movement to emerge, "we will arrest you and kill you and no one will know.' Everyone was afraid."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2009