|Chinese authorities fear Tibet protests similar to those witnessed last March [GALLO/GETTY]
It has been eight months since riots erupted across Tibet against Chinese rule, and the region is still under a security stranglehold. Large areas remain out of bounds to foreigners, while armed troops are a prominent sight in those areas which saw the biggest disturbances.
This year, March 10 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape from Tibet. Tibetans and Tibet experts, however, say that renewed riots on a scale seen in March last year are unlikely with Chinese security so intense, even though the anniversary will be viewed as significant.
A Tibetan in Lhasa who does not wish to be identified told Al Jazeera that the condition in the city "is very, very bad". He said there are armed troops everywhere and many Tibetan pilgrims in Lhasa are being rounded up and sent back to their homes in the countryside.
The intense security in Tibetan areas is evidence that China is nervous about more protests this year, say analysts.
'Undeclared martial law'
Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan-in-exile and a scholar at Harvard, describes the situation on the ground in much of Tibet as "undeclared martial law".
"It is a segregated society at the moment in Lhasa - with Tibetans on one side and Chinese on the other ... the situation is very, very tense. Even old friends dare not talk to each other."
"It is a segregated society at the moment in Lhasa - with Tibetans on one side and Chinese on the other ... the situation is very, very tense"
Lobsang Sangay, a Tibetan-in-exile and Harvard scholar
Such intense security will be maintained, he says, for much of 2009 - a particularly sensitive year as not only is March 10 the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape, but June 4 is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and October 1 is the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.
Would-be protesters will not have a chance, says Sangay.
"Even if 10 or 20 Tibetans start to demonstrate, they will be rounded up very quickly. On every block there are military [personnel] armed with loaded AK47s all over Tibet," he explained.
"Having said that, I think Tibetans will make their discontent shown through sporadic protests here and there, such as the pasting of posters."
In March last year, Tibetans in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and other Tibetan regions in neighbouring provinces staged violent protests which killed more than 20 people according to China. The area was sealed off for three months while the military quashed the unrest.
Beijing blamed the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile based in northern India for instigating the wave of protests. The Dalai Lama denied involvement and Tibetan exiles and many Tibetans inside China say they were sparked by years of resentment against Chinese rule.
Woeser, a prominent Tibetan writer living in China, agrees that Beijing is taking extreme measures to prevent more unrest around March 10 in 2009.
"This is totally unpredictable ... it takes more than an anniversary to trigger something as serious as rioting, but a sequence of events could lead to rioting as it has in the past"
Andrew Nathan, a professor of politics at Columbia University
"At several of the important temples in Lhasa recently, they have posted People's Armed Police units, which are an addition to the normal police that have already been stationed there," said Woeser whose blog writings, including those on the March protests, are blocked inside China.
"So now many temples are completely controlled by the authorities. Also, recently, pilgrims from other Tibetan regions, including Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan provinces, have not been permitted to make pilgrimages to Lhasa or even to do business there."
Woeser is no stranger to harassment herself. At times the authorities placed her under house arrest at her home in Beijing for her outspokenness.
Hope in negotiations
Some Chinese academics are placing their hope in dialogue.
Professor Gong Yuxuan at Beijing Foreign Studies University's School of Philosophy and Social Science says trouble is less likely if Beijing can make amends with the exile community.
"This [the likelihood of more protests] depends on the contact between the Dalai clique and the Chinese government," Gong said.
|March 10 marks the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape [GALLO/GETTY]
"Take Taiwan, for example, now the Chinese government and Taiwan have established a good relationship ... If the Chinese government can do the same with the Dalai clique then it is less likely for any riots to happen in Tibet."
This is looking increasingly unlikely, however.
The latest round of negotiations between the Dalai Lama's envoys and Chinese officials ended sourly in November. Beijing accused him of plotting ethnic cleansing against Chinese if he ever regained power in Tibet, while the Dalai Lama said he now had little faith a resolution would ever be hammered out.
Well over 100 monks and laypeople have been given jail sentences for their part in the March protests, according to Chinese media.
The latest, as reported in the Lhasa Evening News, happened on November 8, when seven Tibetans were given prison terms ranging from eight years to life. One of those given life was Wangdu, a Tibetan HIV project officer working for an Australian non-governmental organisation, the Burnet Institute. He was convicted on charges of spying - sending information about the riots overseas.
Human rights groups also say that in recent weeks the authorities have been stepping up arrests related to freedom of expression.
The most notable, according to Human Rights Watch, is the arrest of an 81-year-old printer in Lhasa. Paljor Norbu was secretly sentenced to seven years in November for crimes related to printing "prohibited material". No other details were given to his family.
Such measures will be ramped up further this year, as March approaches and the region will likely be out of bounds to foreigners again, said Sangay.
"The Chinese really care about anniversaries," and they won't be taking any chances, he added.
"...such harsh conditions will cause more resentment among Tibetans and, much later, much more serious protests will happen in Tibet"
Woeser, a Tibetan writer and blogger
Ignoring the climate of fear and heavy security, other observers say the anniversary may still not be enough to spark major riots.
"This is totally unpredictable," said Andrew Nathan, a China specialist and professor of politics at Columbia University in the US.
"I wouldn't classify it as likely. I think it takes more than an anniversary to trigger something as serious as rioting, but a sequence of events could lead to rioting as it has in the past."
And while Beijing's blanket security measures may succeed in suppressing all kinds of organised dissent in 2009, such a status quo is unsustainable, say Tibetans.
"Under such strict conditions any protest will be quickly suppressed. So I believe that it's not possible to see such protest as we saw last year," says Woeser.
"But I also believe that such harsh conditions will cause more resentment among Tibetans and, much later, much more serious protests will happen in Tibet."