China bans officials and students from Tibet festival

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The Chinese government banned government workers, Communist Party cadres and students in Tibet from observing an important Buddhist festival, citing the need to keep a tighter grip on education and guidance.

The ban applied to the Gaden Ngachoe religious festival, a key event in the Tibetan religious calendar that marks the death of the 14th-century Buddhist teacher Tsongkhapa, who was a founder of the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism.

Local authorities in Lhasa, the capital of the remote Himalayan region, placed a notice in the official Evening News on 12 December, saying the ban covered "all organs of the party and government of Lhasa city, business and enterprise work units and people's collectives".

"Everyone must conscientiously respect the government and party committee's demand," ran the statement, which was picked up by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT).

The festival took place on 25 December. The decision to prevent public officials and students from observing the festival followed tension and unrest at three major monasteries in Lhasa - Drepung, Sera and Ganden during the past year.

Beijing insists Tibetans are free to practise their religion but government officials and public servants are regularly banned from observing traditional festivals, including the birthday of the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader who is the most senior figure in Tibetan Buddhism and is viewed as a dangerous separatist by the central government in Beijing.

However, it is believed this is the first time such a ban has been placed on the Gaden Ngachoe festival and the move is seen as significant as it is possibly the first written proof that certain religious activities in Tibet, even those in public areas, are forbidden for officials and students.

And the open publication of the order in a newspaper was seen by Tibet-watchers as a sign of the tougher political climate under the Communist Party Secretary of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, who was appointed in May last year, and has a reputation as a hardliner on ideological issues.

Mr Zhang has pushed for greater levels of "patriotic education" in Tibet and said the Communist Party is in a "fight to the death" with the Dalai Lama and his supporters. He has pledged to intensify the "anti-separatist struggle and the management of religious affairs".

Mr Zhang cut his teeth as the head of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, which promotes the immigration of Han Chinese people into the restive north-western region of Xinjiang.

The Dalai Lama fled Lhasa in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, nine years after communist troops entered Tibet.

"The Chinese government claims to allow religious freedom in Tibet but this latest instruction on the festival of Gaden Ngachoe prevents a devotional activity that has been practised by Tibetans for hundreds of years and is at the heart of their cultural identity," said Mary Beth Markey, vice president of the ICT.

"This can only create further resentment among Tibetans towards the government's hardline approach," she said.

Tibetans traditionally mark the passing of Tsongkhapa by lighting butter-lamps and candles on the rooftops of monasteries and homes to mark the death of the scholar.