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.

Ashwini Bhatia/AP
An exile Tibetan girl lights a candle during a candlelit vigil to remember two Tibetans who have self-immolated in Tibet, in Dharmsala, India, this August.
Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
Tibetans living in Nepal light candles during a tribute session for fellow Tibetans who killed themselves through self-immolation, at the Tibetan Refugee Center in Lalitpur, Nepal. The number of people in ethnically Tibetan parts of China's southwestern Sichuan Province who have set themselves on fire since March in opposition to religious controls by Beijing, is on the rise.

When Tsering Nyamgal set himself alight on Thursday, he became the 27th Tibetan this month to choose fiery death as a way to protest against Chinese rule.

Mr. Namgyal was the latest voluntary victim in a recent spike in such protests that neither the Chinese authorities nor exiled Tibetan leaders seem able, or willing, to halt.

“We are looking at disaster,” says Robbie Barnett, a prominent expert on Tibetan affairs at Columbia University in New York. “It is a rolling wheel of death and if the Chinese government does not pay attention to Tibetan demands, more and more people will die.”

Namgyal, a father of two, set himself on fire near the government offices in Luqu, a predominantly Tibetan area of Gansu Province, according to Phayul, a Tibetan exile website. He was the 89th Tibetan to self-immolate since Feb. 2009, and No. 74 to die of his injuries, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based advocacy group. 

Dramatic illustrations of frustration

Although the movement began with Tibetan Buddhist monks, recent self-immolators have tended to be young laymen – and women. According to eyewitness reports appearing on exile websites alongside photographs of burning bodies, many of the men have shouted anti-Chinese slogans and praise for the Dalai Lama as they have died.

Their protests are dramatic illustrations of the frustration that many Tibetans living under Chinese rule – not just in the area designated as the Tibet Autonomous Region but across a wide swathe of western China – feel about the way the authorities treat them.

High on their list of grievances a lack of control over their ancestral lands, subjugation to Chinese economic interests, and a lack of respect for Tibetan language and culture. 

An unusual student demonstration on Monday broke out in Qinghai Province protesting the distribution of an official booklet referring to the Tibetan language as “irrelevant” and to the wave of self-immolations as “acts of stupidity,” according to reports by US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Asia.

Campaign to stop self-immolations

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.” 

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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