“In my heart,” the sun-burnt Tibetan said of his plans to observe the Dalai Lama’s 81st birthday before quietly fading into a crowd of tourists and believers heading into the Sera monastery outside Lhasa on Wednesday morning.
Elsewhere in the city, the Dharamsala-based spiritual leader’s birthday wasn’t celebrated with any kind of fervour.
Furtively would probably be a more appropriate word to describe how Tibetans marked the occasion across the Tibet Autonomous Region and especially in the capital Lhasa.
The Communist Party of China (CPC)-led government forbids any public celebration of the birthday of the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 following a revolt in the remote region.
At Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama’s erstwhile residence, things appeared normal with visitors crowding the 13-storey world heritage structure and military-trained fire-fighters keeping a close watch on them.
The government has branded the internationally revered monk as a “splittist” and a “wolf in monk’s robes”.
Beijing says he incited a large number of self-immolation cases – more than 130 – in which Tibetans set themselves afire, demanding his return to China and more rights for the community.
The Chinese government is lenient about the Dalai Lama’s mention in some Tibetan regions, such as Shangri La, where his photos are often displayed in homes.
But not in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Nearly all Tibetans Hindustan Times spoke to in Lhasa on Wednesday remained silent or changed the conversation when it came to the birthday.
One put a finger to his lips. Others said no one was celebrating it – at least not openly.
Lhasa was instead busy completing preparations for the “2016 Forum on the Development of Tibet”, an international seminar with participants from scores of countries and experts on Tibet from across China.
“His birthday is not important to the Chinese. It is not an important date. Do you see any abnormal security in the city? The locals are not bothered,” said Li Xiaojun, director at the State Council, China’s cabinet.
Hindustan Times is in Lhasa at the invitation of the State Council to cover the forum as part of a group of international experts and a handful of independent journalists.
During tours of Potala Palace and Sera Monastery, government officials kept the journalists under watch, apparently to prevent them interacting with locals.
“The government doesn’t interfere in the private lives of Chinese citizens,” Li said when asked about whether Tibetans were allowed to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday in their homes. “Public display is forbidden. How can it be allowed, he is a separatist.”
He said there was no connection between the birthday and the forum being held at around the same time.
“Our only focus is to lift 590,000 Tibet Autonomous Region citizens under the poverty line out of poverty in the next few years by improving their livelihood,” he said.