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Spike in Tibetan self-immolations draws international attention to China

Today, yet another Tibetan died after he set himself on fire in protest. And neither the Chinese authorities nor exiled Tibetan leaders seem able, or willing, to halt the recent spike in such incidents.

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In Huangnan, another ethnically Tibetan part of Qinghai, the authorities have stepped up a campaign to stop the self-immolations, according to Human Rights Watch. The group published a local government decree it said had appeared two weeks ago on TV ordering the cancellation of “all benefits received by the households of self-immolators under public benefit policies,” and announcing that “all projects running on state funds in self-immolators’ villages must be stopped.” 

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Some influential Tibetan leaders in China too have appealed for an end to the self-immolations. Radio Free Asia this week quoted a statement issued by a group of lamas and teachers in Tongren, where many of this month’s self-immolations have occurred, appealing for a halt to the deaths.

"We, who have true affection for the society and the nationalities and who value human life, beg you with our knees fixed on the earth, our hands clasped to our hearts, and our minds with unblemished clarity, appeal to you to cease desperate acts of self-immolations," they said in the statement, a copy of which was made available to Radio Free Asia on Wednesday.

Tibet and Tibetan areas of provinces such as Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai are officially closed to reporters, making it impossible to verify reports by exiled Tibetans and Tibet advocacy groups abroad.

One foreigner who did recently visit a Tibetan area of Sichuan was US Ambassador Gary Locke, who made an unannounced trip in September to two Buddhist monasteries in Aba Prefecture, where the current wave of self-immolations began nearly three years ago.

The United States “is very concerned about the situation, the heightened tensions in the Tibetan areas, the deplorable self-immolations and of course just the policies of the Chinese government at all levels,” Mr. Locke said in an interview this week with CNN.

The Chinese government “could resolve the practical issues that concern Tibetans quite easily,” says Dr. Barnett, but has chosen instead to continue to impose the hard-line policies that have caused such resentment.

The Dalai Lama, who enjoys unrivaled political and moral support among Tibetans, could also stop the self-immolations if he spoke out against them, says Barnett, but he has so far refused to do so, apparently reluctant to undermine the authority of the exile Tibetan government to whom he handed political power last year.

“Either side could intervene to stop this but neither side will,” laments Barnett. “It is difficult to see why people should stop self-immolating; until one side or the other blinks this will go on.”

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