'Uprising Day' plans muted by China clampdown
As the anniversary of the Dalai Lama's flight into exile, March 10 has traditionally been a flashpoint for unrest in China's vast Tibetan-inhabited regions.
But the monks at Taersi Buddhist Monastery in the northwestern province of Qinghai have no plans to mark the day their revered spiritual leader fled Tibet following a failed uprising against China's rule in 1959.
"No, no, we have no activities planned to commemorate this day," said one monk at Taersi, home to more than 3,000 monks and one of the most influential institutions in the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.
"Right now our monastery is under strict supervision, it is not proper to speak of such things at this time," the monk told AFP, refusing to give his name out of fear for his safety.
Chinese authorities launched a huge security clampdown ahead of the sensitive anniversary, known in Tibetan areas as "uprising day".
It comes after a year in which more than 20 Tibetans, most of them monks, have set fire to themselves to protest Beijing's rule, sparking international condemnation of what critics call religious and cultural repression.
Beijing has heaped blame for the incidents on the Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, accusing the 76-year-old Buddhist leader and his followers of plotting to create "turmoil" in China's Tibetan-inhabited areas.
Tibetan Buddhist clergy are under particularly close scrutiny -- the government closely monitors their activities, stationing its representatives in monasteries and nunneries in the region and organising "political re-education" classes.
Nonetheless, photographs of the Dalai Lama, often banned in China's Tibetan-inhabited regions, are on open display in some of the vast halls at Taersi, also known by its Tibetan name of Kumbum monastery.
Visitors are shown locked rooms where monks bow and pray before even more photographs of the spiritual leader.
Monks in Taersi said security surrounding the monastery has been heavy since March 2008, when deadly riots erupted in Tibet's capital, Lhasa, and spread to other areas.
But while there have been a number of self-immolations in neighbouring Sichuan province, only one has been reported in Qinghai, which has a relatively large population of other ethnic groups including the dominant Han Chinese.
"What is particularly significant I think is that there haven't been any self-immolations in the Tibetan autonomous region, which is after all an area where half of Tibetans live," said Barry Sautman, an expert on Tibetan issues.
He said there was a difference between "those areas that are multi-ethnic or urban, or quasi-urban", where most of the self-immolations had occurred, and the sparsely populated countryside where very few Han people live.
Beijing insists that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and have benefited from improved living standards brought on by China's economic expansion.
At the Taersi monastery, there is little evidence of any ethnic tensions, and the Tibetan monks say they coexist peacefully with their Han Chinese and ethnic Mongolian counterparts.
But they are also highly aware of the debate surrounding their revered spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in Beijing.
"We are awaiting his return to Tibet," said one.
"The government accuses him of wanting Tibetan independence, but the Dalai Lama has always said he wants more autonomy for Tibet, he wants something like the 'one country, two systems' China gave Hong Kong."