Three people set themselves on fire near China's Tiananmen Square

BEIJING – When three people set themselves on fire Wednesday not far from Tiananmen Square, the first thing that came to my mind was that they were Tibetans – perhaps Buddhist monks – marking Tibetan New Year today with a dramatic protest against the Chinese government.

The Dalai Lama, after all, had called on his fellow Tibetans not to celebrate the festival but to spend it in prayer for those who died during last year’s uprising.

As ever with eye-catching events in China, details of the attempted self-immolation emerged slowly, though it was notable that the official news agency, Xinhua, carried the basic news almost immediately, rather than try to cover the incident up.

I was also struck by the speed with which the Beijing police sent me a faxed statement about the event, after my assistant had called their spokesman for a comment; normally police spokesmen say they know nothing and hang up on you.

Still, the police would say little more than that three people, (origin unspecified) had set their car on fire when they were stopped by patrolmen near Tiananmen Square, and that they had been hauled out of the flames alive. “According to preliminary investigation,” the police said, the three were petitioners who “came to Beijing to resolve personal problems.”

Petitioners come here in their thousands each year to lodge complaints with the central government about the way local officials have allegedly mistreated them. As often as not they are arrested and sent back home.

This time, however, the protest appeared to have some broader political potential: An eyewitness told Reuters news agency that one of the men pulled from the smoldering car might have been a Uighur – a member of the Muslim ethnic minority from China’s far west about whom Beijing is almost as nervous as it is about Tibet. (Read the Monitor's story about Uighurs here.)

Self immolation is not an uncommon form of protest by Chinese people driven to desperation: A man demanding unpaid wages set himself on fire in Tiananmen Square in 2006.

But just who these people were, and why they set themselves on fire, remains, for the time being, a mystery.

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