By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
The wave of Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule may have entered a new phase following a record number of burnings last week.
The failure to contain the fiery protests, experts say, poses a major challenge to Beijing, which has tried a combination of strategies to douse the Tibetan campaign—from offering cash rewards to Tibetans to tip off potential burnings to tightening security clampdowns on monasteries.
There were seven self-immolations from Oct 20 to Saturday, making it the deadliest week of burnings since the fiery protests intensified in March last year against Beijing’s rule in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated areas in Chinese provinces.
Two burnings per day were reported twice in the previous week—another record—as the number of self-immolations which began in February 2009 rose to 62.
The protests are continuing despite calls to end them by a special meeting of Tibetan exile groups convened on the advice of Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in India’s hill town of Dharamsala, where he lives in exile.
“This is a very serious development, suggesting that Tibetans believe that this rising number of self-immolations will make a substantive difference to their political situation, and it could lead to more people burning themselves,” Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University, told RFA.
He thinks the self-immolation protests that have been questioning Beijing’s rule and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama have entered a new phase.
The first phase, he said, was sparked in March last year when monks at the restive Kirti monastery in the Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of western China’s Sichuan province torched themselves to display their anger at the security clampdown at the monastery.
The protests spread to neighboring Qinghai and Gansu provinces and to the Tibetan Autonomous Region as Tibetan laypeople joined monks and nuns in setting themselves alight and holding street demonstrations to underline their opposition to Chinese rule.
“The second phase involved laypeople, who were not responding to any particular incident but possibly to demonstrate sympathy for the monks and nuns. There was a general realization that the monks were under pressure,” Barnett said.
The latest string of self-immolation protests—which involved double burnings on a single day, a cluster of five burnings in a week in the Kanlho (Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and calls by self-immolators for independence for Tibet—signal a new phase, he explained.
“This seems to me a new development.”
The self-immolation protests are intensifying even as Chinese authorities take various measures to contain the situation.
On Oct. 21, Chinese police put up notices in Kanlho prefecture offering those who tip off authorities of planned self-immolations a reward of nearly U.S. $8,000. Since the notice was issued, four immolations occurred in the area.
“The language used in the notice is consistent with the absence of official acknowledgement of policies or practices that have assuredly contributed to the … self-immolations in Tibet since February 2009,” said Washington-based advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet President Mary Beth Markey.
“Instead officials continue to characterize the Tibetan self-immolations as imitative, criminal, or misguided acts of ‘terrorism-in-disguise’,” she said.
Chinese officials had also approached the family of a Tibetan who self-immolated recently and offered them one million yuan (nearly U.S. $160,000) “if they confess and sign a document stating that he died over a family dispute and not in protest against Chinese rule.”
Dorjee Kyi, the wife of Sangay Gyatso, a 27-year-old father of two who self-immolated on Oct. 6 in a monastery compound in Tsoe (in Chinese, Hezuo) county in Gansu, rejected the offer, according to sources close to the family.
Hundreds of Tibetans suspected by the authorities of being linked to the self-immolations have also been detained, often in locations unknown to their families and without any legal rights, rights groups said.
In an apparent attempt to instil fear into the Tibetans, stiff jail sentences—of up to 11 years—are being imposed on those spreading news of self-immolations to “outside contacts.”
Communication links to areas where self-immolations occur are also cut off immediately to avoid any negative publicity, sources said.
“Across Tibet, the Chinese state is employing force and intimidation to quell calls for freedom and suppress information about protests,” London-based advocacy group Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden said.
“The people of Tibet continue to reject Chinese rule despite the state’s use of lethal force against protesters, disappearances, mass detentions, torture, deaths in detention, surveillance of communities and measures aimed at turning Tibetans against each other,” she said.
Brigden said Tibetans were also choosing the locations of their self-immolation protests carefully, pointing towards a potential trend of setting themselves on fire in front of Chinese government buildings that symbolize Beijing’s occupation.
Lobsang Sangay, head of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), as the government in exile is called, said the self-immolations stemmed from “political repression, economic marginalization, environmental destruction and cultural assimilation in Tibet by the Chinese government.”
“Stop the repression and self-immolation would stop,” he said.
“In Tibet today, there are more Chinese than Tibetans, more troops than Tibetan monks and more surveillance cameras than windows, more guns than Tibetan butter lamps,” Sangay said.