An Unhappy Chinese New Year: Chinese Forces Shoot Tibetan Protesters, with At Least One Dead

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Chinese paramilitary police in the streets of Aba, in China's Sichuan province

Philippe Lopez / AFP / Getty Images

Chinese New Year is a raucous time, with celebrants detonating firecrackers late into the night to scare off evil spirits. But in the remote Tibetan-dominated reaches of Sichuan province, in China’s far west, the crackles erupting on the afternoon of Jan. 23, the first day of the new Year of the Dragon, were not just a symbolic cacophony. They were deadly. At least one (and up to six) Tibetans were shot dead by Chinese security forces, according to Tibetan exile groups, after residents had gathered at a police station in Kardze prefecture (or Ganzi in Mandarin) to protest Chinese rule. It was the biggest outbreak of violence since widespread protests in Tibetan areas triggered a fierce crackdown in 2008.

Xinhua, China’s state news agency, acknowledged that one Tibetan had been killed in Kardze’s Dragko county (or Luhuo in Mandarin). The Xinhua report said that “the crowd began attacking a police station with clubs and stones [and] one protester was killed in the following clash with the police, which also left five officers injured.” Tibetan overseas groups confirmed that demonstrating Tibetans had attacked shops owned by members of the Han ethnic group, which makes up China’s majority.

Tensions have been building across Tibetan regions since March 2011 as at least 16 self-immolations by Tibetans — nearly all monks, nuns or former clerics — have cast a grim spotlight on the continued oppression of Tibetans by the Chinese government. Despite Beijing’s avowals that Tibetans enjoy full religious freedoms and even some social benefits not available to the Han (like the freedom to bear more than one child), Tibetans complain that they are being forced to live in what is essentially a police state. Proud of a unique civilization that they believe was essentially independent when Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops began their assault in 1950, Tibetans say their culture is now being overwhelmed by an influx of Han migrants.

Even after decades of propaganda directed against the Dalai Lama and a government campaign to make Tibetan Buddhist clerics denounce him, reverence of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader is widespread. Despite the threat of arrest, many Tibetans keep a secret image of him, a cherished talisman displayed on a cell phone or in a home altar. (The Dalai Lama escaped to India in 1959 after a failed revolt against the Chinese state and has not been back home since.) Most of the people who have self-immolated since last March have called for the Dalai Lama’s return and professed their love for him. The Chinese government blames the Tibetan spiritual leader for orchestrating the fiery acts, a charge he denies.

As Chinese New Year approached, mysterious leaflets started appearing at the county headquarters in Dragko (also known as Draggo or Drango). Some called for Tibet’s freedom, others featured an unnamed person who vowed to set himself or herself on fire during the holiday. Witnesses of the Jan. 23 mayhem said one of the protesters had indeed tried to self-immolate, according to Radio Free Asia (RFA), citing sources who maintain contact with Tibetans in Kardze (also rendered in Tibetan as Kandze) despite efforts by the Chinese government to limit foreign journalists’ exposure to locals. Overseas Tibetan groups say that hundreds of demonstrators were arrested on Monday afternoon but that thousands of Tibetans were flooding in from other counties in Kardze, including Tawu (or Daofu in Mandarin), where a monk and nun self-immolated last year. Dozens of injured protesters have been ferried to Dragko monastery, according to RFA.

The Tibetan parliament-in-exile, which is based in the Indian hill station of Dharamsala, released a statement condemning the Chinese authorities’ use of force that said: “We are also taken aback by the silence of the International Community when it comes to such gross violation of Human Rights in Tibet.” Meanwhile, Chinese security forces fired tear gas on protesters in Sichuan’s Ngaba county (or Aba in Mandarin), according to London-based exile group Free Tibet. Ngaba, which is located northeast of Kardze, has served as the epicenter of the Tibetan self-immolation movement. Since last March, 11 of the 16 fiery acts have taken place there, including three this month. On Jan. 14, a woman in Ngaba was shot by Chinese forces after crowds gathered to mourn a former monk who set himself on fire, according to overseas Tibetan activists.

There’s little indication that the Year of the Dragon will bring an end to the conflict in Tibetan areas. News of the self-immolations, protests and crackdowns are traveling fast through the snowbound, mountainous region, even as the Chinese government has tried to black out information by blocking roads, shutting off cell-phone networks and severing Internet connections. And there’s another date coming that could rouse desperate Tibetans: Losar, or the Tibetan New Year, falls on Feb. 22 this year. Chinese security forces will no doubt descend then. So, too, may Tibetans who find little to celebrate this year.