Security forces put on a show of force in the important Tibetan monastery town of Xiahe in the foothills of the Tibetan plateau before a sensitive Tibetan anniversary.
March will mark the 50th anniversary of the exile of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s highest religious leader, and the one-year anniversary of protests against Chinese rule in Lhasa and in Tibetan communities across the plateau.
Riot police marched through Xiahe’s tense main street at regular intervals on Saturday morning, while vehicles were stopped and checked at military road blocks about 200 km (120 miles) from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province.
“Last year, because of the Olympics, people were confident China could not be too harsh with us. But this year, nothing much will happen because people are much more afraid,” a monk told Reuters.
Hundreds of monks at Xiahe’s Labrang monastery took to the streets last March, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama and greater freedoms for Tibetans.
“China is like our father. When we do something wrong, he beats us,” a second monk said.
That monk said the security presence in the monastery was light during the day, but that security forces conducted raids and rounded up monks for questioning at night.
Xiahe has been closed to foreign visitors since Jan 25, the day before the Chinese New Year Lunar began, although Tibetan pilgrims were allowed in. A sharp increase in security patrols on Saturday may be to prevent any incident during the unveiling of a giant Buddhist thangka, or sacred cloth, to mark the middle of the first month.
Xiahe and some other ethnically Tibetan areas celebrate the New Year, or Losar, at the same time as ethnic Han Chinese, while many other Tibetans will celebrate it at the next new moon, in late February.
Some Tibetans have advocated not celebrating at all this year in order to commemorate last year’s demonstrations and crackdown.
A week of demonstrations in Lhasa turned deadly on March 14, 2008, when a Tibetan crowd burnt shops belonging to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, killing 19 people.
That triggered demonstrations and marches throughout ethnically Tibetan regions, which were quelled after a few days by Chinese police and paramilitary troops.
In Xiahe last year crowds threw stones at government buildings, while elsewhere in Gansu Province demonstrators raised a banned Tibetan flag and burnt police and government offices.
Thousands of Tibetans were rounded up in the following crackdown across the region last year. Exile Tibetan groups allege many were beaten and some killed in the crackdown.