By Michael Martina
LANGMU, China (Reuters) - Tibetans in northwest China marked a tense traditional new year with prayer, the sounding of a gong and subdued defiance on Wednesday, in the wake of a string of self-immolations and protests against Chinese control.
The traditional new year, or "Losar," is a combination of Buddhist ceremony and family celebration observed across the Tibetan highlands of western China.
But this year, unrest has overshadowed the celebrations and there has even been a call from an exiled Tibetan leader for people to shun festivities and instead pray for those who have suffered under Chinese rule.
At least 16 Tibetans are believed to have died after setting themselves on fire in protest since March, most of them Buddhist monks in Tibetan parts of Sichuan and Gansu provinces, next to what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region.
This year's Losar has brought no major flare-ups.
But the heavy security in many areas and widespread Tibetan resentment of the government's presence remain a volatile combination that could be kindled by sensitive anniversaries and warmer weather.
At the Kirti Monastery in Langmu, a town straddling Gansu and Sichuan, hundreds of red-robed Buddhist monks gathered to chant prayers while a large gong rang twice a minute.
"Life is full of this pressure here. With the Dalai Lama in India and us here, it is very painful for us," said a 51-year-old Tibetan herder who had come to watch the ceremony. He gave his name as Jiata.
The Kirti monastery in Langmu is a smaller offshoot of a monastery in Sichuan that has been an epicenter of confrontation between the government and defiant Tibetans.
Authorities have blamed supporters of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader, for fomenting defiance, but he remains a revered figure among most Tibetans.
"The government controls everything we think. They say we have freedom to think as we like, but we don't," said the herder.
In Langmu, police and security forces stayed in the background. But some Tibetan areas have faced heavy police controls as authorities seek to deter fresh protests, especially ahead of March 10, the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule that ended with the Dalai Lama fleeing into exile.
"A LOT OF PRESSURE"
Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile in northern India, this week urged Tibetans not to celebrate Losar this year, and instead to pray for those "who have sacrificed and suffered under the repressive policies of the Chinese government."
Labrang, a heavily Tibetan part of Gansu province, and home to a large monastery, was also calm and subdued.
"This year celebrating new year won't be as good as last year. Why? You know why. The Communist Party is putting a lot of pressure on us Tibetans," said a Tibetan resident of Labrang, who declined to be identified.
"But we have no plans to do anything different. There won't be any protests. Protest, and people get shot."
The Dalai Lama has blamed the self-immolations on "cultural genocide" by the Chinese, and has not directly called for them to stop. But he has long denied Chinese accusations that he incites violence and wants full-fledged independence.
Premier Wen Jiabao said last week the self-immolations were extreme acts to undermine stability in the region and had no popular support, the highest-level comments since increased tension in January.
For China, the self-immolations are a small, but potentially destabilizing, challenge to policies toward minority groups and the region. The government has branded the immolators "terrorists".
"Since last year, there have been individual incidents of self-immolation in Sichuan and other Tibetan regions, and we are pained at these deaths," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news briefing on Tuesday.
"According to what we know, many of these self-immolations are directly connected with the Dalai clique's inciting of popular feelings overseas," Hong said.
Advocacy groups say as many as seven Tibetans were shot dead and dozens wounded during protests in January. China's official Xinhua news agency said police fired in self-defense on "mobs" that stormed police stations.
The official Tibet Daily said on Tuesday that a senior Communist Party official had visited monasteries in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and asked people there to "make contributions" towards stability in the new year.
Monasteries "must proactively guide monks to embrace the leadership of the Party and raise their sense of responsibility towards ethnic and national unity and social stability," the official, Gongbao Zhaxi, was cited as saying.
(Writing by Chris Buckley and Ben Blanchard; Editing by Brian Rhoads and Robert Birsel)