CHINESE officials call it the “sensitive month”. It’s a time of anniversaries, a time of remembrance and, in decades gone by, of resistance, all of which gives rise to the annual apprehension that surrounds the month of March in Tibet.

It was back in 2008 on March 14 when anti-Chinese riots erupted in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, before being quelled in a fierce crackdown by the Chinese authorities.

But it’s another March day some 60 years ago this past week that weighs most heavily on the minds of many Tibetans right now.

For it was back then on the 10th of that same month that the most famous uprising in Lhasa against Chinese rule was crushed, resulting in the flight into exile of Tibet’s most important spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

At the time, the outside world knew next to nothing of the dramatic events unfolding in this isolated and remote Himalayan region of plateaus and mountains often referred to as the “roof of the world”.

Later, however, the story of the Dalai Lama’s escape would become near legendary. Then only 23 years old, the young man born with the name Lhamo Thondup, who when just two years old had been identified as the new incarnation of Tibet’s most revered spiritual leader, simply seemed to have disappeared.

The National: The tale of the Dalai Lama's escape from China is an incredible oneThe tale of the Dalai Lama's escape from China is an incredible one

“According to some rumours, the young man could be in his Potala Palace in Lhasa or under Chinese military guard,” one news agency report of the time said, citing India’s The Statesman newspaper.

It would only be much later that the full details of the Dalai Lama’s remarkable escape would come to light. Details of how he had been able to slip past Chinese troops massed around his Lhasa palace dressed as a soldier and met up with a group of Tibetan resistance fighters 37 miles outside of the capital.

Or how along with his mother, sister, younger brother and several top officials, he walked and rode non-stop for two days and nights through the harsh Himalayan terrain before crossing the major Brahmaputra River using a single boat made of yak skin, always just ahead of the pursuing Chinese troops.

Later, according to Time magazine’s cover story of his escape, the rumours would continue to circulate among Tibetans that the Dalai Lama “had been screened from Red planes by mist and low clouds conjured up by the prayers of Buddhist holy men”. Back in Tibet, meanwhile, thousands died fighting the Chinese forces.

It was not until April 3 of that year that Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru announced that “the Dalai Lama entered India on March 31 in the evening,” crossing the border into the country where he would establish a government-in-exile that continues to this day in the northern hill station town of Dharamsala.

In those long intervening 60 years since the Dalai Lama fled into permanent Indian exile, much has happened to the cause of Tibetan freedom that earned him a Nobel Prize and brought international celebrities rallying in support.

But what has become of the Dalai Lama today, and what now of Tibet’s hopes of becoming an autonomous state unshackled from the dictatorial rule of China and its Communist government in Beijing?

The National: The Dalai Lama's influence on Tibet these days is very limited, some experts argueThe Dalai Lama's influence on Tibet these days is very limited, some experts argue

“The fate of Tibet is in the hands of the Chinese state ... Tibetans outside the region are not very relevant to the fate of Tibet and this includes the Dalai Lama,” insists Dr Nathan Hill, a historical linguist and Tibetologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

It’s a view shared by many Tibet watchers who over recent years have witnessed the exile-led movement lose momentum as China’s grip on the region has tightened on every level.

Just as six decades on Tibetans will mourn the lost of their beloved country, so Beijing will celebrate the 60th anniversary of what it describes as “Serfs Emancipation Day” or the complete “liberation” of Tibet.

In defending its policies in Tibet, the Chinese Communist government says it has put an end to a backwards, feudalistic system and brought economic progress to a region where most families relied on livestock and agriculture.

A recent editorial by the state news agency Xinhua brazenly summed up Beijing’s assessment saying: “Sixty years since the epoch-making democratic reform in Tibet, people in the plateau region have enjoyed unprecedented human rights.”

In the past week, China’s Communist Party chief in Tibet even went as far as to insist that the Tibetan people feel more affection towards the government than to the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama hasn’t done a “single good thing” for Tibet since he left it, claimed party secretary Wu Yingjie during a meeting of China’s ceremonial legislature.

To many in China’s Communist Party leadership, the 83-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate remains a dangerous separatist they often describe as a “wolf in monk’s robes”.

But despite such denunciations and claims of Tibet’s “liberation”, many of China’s more than six million Tibetans still venerate the Dalai Lama, amid government prohibitions on displays of his picture or any public display of devotion.

There is no doubt, too, that human rights in Tibet remain a serious cause for international concern.

Despite the passage of time, during sensitive political anniversaries such as now China’s security apparatus routinely restricts access to Tibet. Every year since the riots of 2008 the country has been closed to foreign tourists for several weeks around March. Foreign journalists and Western diplomats are rarely allowed in.

This year, because of the 60th anniversary, the ban is expected to be longer than usual. In January, Tibet’s police chief Zhang Hongbo said there were “many risks and hidden dangers” in this year of anniversaries, including the 70th on October 1 of Communist China’s founding.

Most Tibetans are were well aware of the 60th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exile, even if public commemorations of any sort are banned.

“You can only bury it in your heart, we just don’t speak about it,” one Tibetan man who declined to be identified told the Associated Press news agency recently, speaking in the largely ethnic Tibetan town of Rebkong in Qinghai Province.

“We have no ability to go against politics, we can only just go with society,” the man added.

Given such restrictions on access and movement, making any full assessment of human rights violations taking place in Tibet is difficult to say the least.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that as China has risen economically, so Beijing has become far more repressive. Just as with Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang province, many of whom are now held in mass concentration camps, so Tibetans also feel the full force of Chinese state repression.

“In Tibet, authorities have intensified political education and imposed restrictions on informal community groups,” says the international monitoring body Human Rights Watch (HRW) “Across the country, lawyers, journalists, perceived critics, and human rights defenders continue to endure arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance,” says HRW.

Just recently, the Chinese Communist Party banned Tibetan monasteries from offering Tibetan language classes, prompting international human rights organisations to request that Beijing lift the ban. In the past, monasteries in the region have also been ordered to hang up portraits of Communist Party leaders and icons like Mao Zedong or face punishment.

“China’s ban on the establishment of Tibetan language classes in monasteries is a violation of many basic human rights from education to cultural life,” said Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director.

In tandem with such violations, Tibet has been transformed into a sprawling “surveillance state” under a system designed to forcibly assimilate its local population and culture.

According to China’s own media, virtually every street in Lhasa is under constant CCTV surveillance. One report this month from Tibet News, a Chinese state-run online news site, detailed how 200 new taxis were put into operation in Lhasa in February, equipped with real-time video surveillance before they were assigned to taxi drivers.

The National: Protests to free Tibet still take place – but with less publicity from celebritiesProtests to free Tibet still take place – but with less publicity from celebrities

The Chinese Government’s strategy, which was formally rolled out across the region as far back as 2014, is described by state media as a “grid management” surveillance system aimed at managing society “without gaps, without blind spots, without blanks”.

“This is a Chinese specialty, where the masses participate in managing and controlling society and they also enjoy the results of managing their society,” insists Qi Zhala, a top Communist Party official in Lhasa.

Activists for Tibet maintain the intention of the programme is aimed clearly at ensuring absolute control over the Tibetan population.

“Tibetans live in a totalitarian police state, if they challenge restrictions, they face the consequences,” says Gray Tuttle, a professor of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

“Previous protests from the 1980s on have yielded no tangible benefits, rather they have generated a worse political outcome and further clampdown.”

Many Tibetans have made the ultimate sacrifice since 2009. As many as 150 people have set themselves on fire in protest against Beijing, most of whom have died from their injuries. Today, though, the frequency of self-immolations has lessened.

While Tibetans at home struggle to keep their traditions alive, their fight for freedom as a cause celebre among international celebrities has largely fallen off the radar.

“The craze for Tibet among Westerners in the 1980s and the following decades has decreased significantly,” says Katia Buffetrille, a Tibetologist at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes in Paris.

Other Tibet watchers agree, among them Robert Farley, an assistant professor at the Patterson School of Diplomacy in the US.

“The visibility of the Free Tibet movement depended upon a few key activists … while Richard Gere has not renounced his support for Tibet, his attention has shifted to other issues,” wrote Farley in online magazine The Diplomat recently.

“Similarly, the illness and eventual death of Adam Yauch, singer and musician with the band Beastie Boys, made it more difficult for Free Tibet activists to reach broader audiences through the music community,” Farley adds.

Like many Tibet watchers, Farley is of the view that perhaps the 1990s represented a peak of Tibet political activism that caught the public eye. It was during that decade, for example, that two major film productions called attention to China’s activities in Tibet, one being Kundun by Martin Scorcese, and the other Seven Years In Tibet, featuring Brad Pitt.

Other factors may also have contributed to the decline of a Tibet activist movement that never had a substantial Tibetan diaspora at its core, not least geopolitics and shifting economic and foreign policy relations between the West and China. The oppression of Uighurs in Xinjiang has also overtaken Tibet as the focus of China’s human rights critics.

But despite this decline in global attention, demonstrations by pro-Tibetan groups went ahead this past week in cities from London to New York, Delhi to Tokyo, marking the rebellion in 1959.

Attention may well return when the current Dalai Lama, now 83, passes away.

Already the issue of who might become his successor is becoming increasingly important as the Dalai Lama ages, raising the prospect of Beijing seeking to name its own successor to the exiled spiritual leader.

The Chinese Communist Party has already shown its willingness to intervene in the reincarnation of important figures in Tibetan Buddhism. Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the boy chosen by the Dalai Lama as his successor, was detained by the Chinese authorities at the age of six and has not been seen since. Beijing then appointed its own candidate in 1995.

For the moment, the Dalai Lama as leader of one of the world’s most secluded peoples continues to represent the spirit of resiliency of Tibetans.

Last week, in India’s capital, New Delhi, at least 3000 Tibetans marched through the city centre, some carrying a portrait of the Dalai Lama while occasionally chanting slogans wishing him a long life and calling for freedom for Tibet.

This and other anniversary protests were yet another reminder to Chinese officials that March remains a “sensitive month” in the minds of Tibetans.

“We have come here to remind the new generation that China snatched our country,” one marcher, Sonam Yougyal, told reporters. Whether a new generation of Tibetans and the world will heed such reminders in the future remains to be seen.