TAR Creates March 28 Holiday To Celebrate 1959 Dissolution of Dalai Lama's Government

May 10, 2009

Deputies to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) People's Congress voted on January 19, 2009, to establish "Serfs Emancipation Day," a public holiday celebrating the March 28, 1959, Chinese government decree that dissolved the Dalai Lama's Lhasa-based Tibetan government, according to two January 19 Xinhua reports (1, 2 (translated in OSC, 22 January 09).

Deputies to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) People's Congress voted on January 19, 2009, to establish "Serfs Emancipation Day," a public holiday celebrating the March 28, 1959, Chinese government decree that dissolved the Dalai Lama's Lhasa-based Tibetan government, according to two January 19 Xinhua reports (1, 2 (translated in OSC, 22 January 09). Karma (Gama), Vice Chairman of the TAR People's Congress Standing Committee, explained at a January 19 press conference that Premier Zhou Enlai signed the State Council decree on March 28 "declaring a disbandment" of the Tibetan government after "the reactionary clique at the upper levels of Tibet led by the Dalai launched an all-round armed rebellion on 10 March, 1959, aimed at splitting the motherland." Legchog (Lieque), the Chairman of the Standing Committee, said Serfs Emancipation Day would "strengthen Tibetans' patriotism," according to a January 16 Xinhua report. TAR prefectural and county officials have met to "ensure that all people mark the occasion with festivities," according to a January 16 Radio Free Asia (RFA) report filed three days before the holiday was formally established. The report cited a TAR official who asked not to be identified and acknowledged that Tibetans are unwilling to celebrate the anniversary.

On March 10, 1959, tens of thousands of Tibetans in Lhasa gathered outside the Dalai Lama’s summer residence (the Norbulingka Palace), where he was residing at the time, because they feared a People's Liberation Army (PLA) plot to harm the Dalai Lama, according to biographical information available on the Web site of the Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama (OHHDL). Tension increased and on March 15 PLA artillery shells struck outside the Norbulingka, according to a chronology on the OHHDL Web site. The Dalai Lama escaped from Lhasa in disguise and under the cover of darkness on March 17, 1959. Earlier that day, PLA artillery shells exploded outside one of the Norbulingka gates, according to the Dalai Lama's autobiography, Freedom in Exile (p. 149). Speaking from India where he lives in exile, the Dalai Lama has on March 10 of every year since 1960 made a formal statement to the Tibetan people. (The Dalai Lama's 1961-2008 March 10 Statements are available on his official Web site.)

Most Tibetan Buddhists regard the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader despite Party and government campaigns that seek to vilify and discredit him. Tibetan calls for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet were widespread during the 2008 Tibetan protests (see below). The absence of any progress during the seventh and eighth rounds of the China-Dalai Lama dialogue in 2008 has deepened Tibetan frustration with the Chinese government. (See the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) 2008 Annual Report; Tibet: Special Focus for 2007 of the 2007 Annual Report; and Section VIII―Tibet of the 2006 Annual Report for more information on the status of negotiations between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama's representatives, and the Chinese government and Party's anti-Dalai Lama campaign.).

Establishing "Serfs Emancipation Day" and requiring Tibetans to participate in celebrations of the end of the Dalai Lama's government (and, by association, the departure of the Dalai Lama), is provocative at a time of heightened Tibetan sensitivity, possibly increasing further the risks to what Chinese officials call "social stability." March 10 is also the one-year anniversary of the start in Lhasa in 2008 of a cascade of Tibetan protests that by April 2008 had reached across the TAR and the Tibetan autonomous areas located in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces. The protests resulted in a large number of deaths, detentions, and disappearances according to reports by media and non-government organizations, but Chinese government measures to prevent information from leaving China have obstructed a full or accurate accounting of the consequences. The Lhasa Intermediate People's Court handed down seven sentences in October and November 2008 ranging from eight years in prison to life imprisonment to Tibetans who allegedly provided information about events in Lhasa to Tibetan organizations based in India. Chinese officials blamed "the Dalai Clique" for "masterminding" the 2008 protests and rioting, and did not acknowledge the role of rising Tibetan frustration with Chinese policies. (See the CECC 2008 Annual Report for more information on the Tibetan protests and their consequences.)

Some Tibetans living in Tibetan autonomous areas of China intend to express in a passive manner their discontent with developments over the past year, including the death and imprisonment of Tibetan protesters, by foregoing the usual celebration of Losar, the Tibetan lunar New Year (February 25 in 2009), according to the January 16 RFA report, a January 27 International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) report, and a January 29 Washington Post (WP) report. A Tibetan source in Aba (Ngaba) county, located in Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, told RFA that Tibetans in the county are "observing a year of mourning in memory of those who were killed, tortured, and jailed during the protests in Tibet." The ICT report noted that "many Tibetans posted blogs and comments mostly opposing any celebration" of the New Year. A monk in Qinghai told the WP that instead of celebrating the Tibetan or Chinese New Year, he and other monks would not eat "good food" or set off firecrackers.

Tibetans in Lhasa adopted non-celebration of Losar to express collective dissatisfaction in 1992, the first Tibetan New Year following a 14-month period of martial law imposed on March 8, 1989, after three days of protests and rioting in Lhasa. According to one eyewitness account:

"That year, the first day of the Tibetan New Year, called Losar, fell on March 5, the anniversary of the demonstrations in 1988 and 1989. Many Lhasa residents had decided to acknowledge the coincidence of Tibetan New Year and March 5 not by doing, but by not doing. Contrary to tradition, tattered window-awnings, dirty door-hangings, and faded whitewash remained untouched, greeting the New Year with utter cheerlessness." (Steven Marshall, "Prisons in Tibet," in Elliot Sperling, Steven Marshall, Orville Schell, and Mickey Spiegel, Tibet Since 1950: Silence, Prison, or Exile, Aperture and Human Rights Watch (New York: Aperture, 2000), 144-149.