Self-Immolations Rise as China Tightens Grip
A report in the New York Times looks at the harsh crackdown in Tibetan regions which has heightened tensions between local residents and Han authorities and led 29 Tibetans from various walks of life to set themselves on fire in protest. One of the 29 was a middle school student who was angered by the mandated switch from Tibetan language to Mandarin in her school:
Tibetan scholars and exiles say the current resistance campaign is unlike anything seen before. The tactic — public, fiery suicides that do not harm bystanders or property — has profoundly moved ordinary Tibetans and bedeviled Chinese officials. Just as significant, they note, is that the protesters are mostly young — all but nine of them under 30.
Tsering Kyi was one of them. According to family members, she was a thoughtful student whose hard work earned her a place on the school’s honor roll. But in 2010, she joined classmates who took to the streets of this dusty county seat to protest the new Chinese-language textbooks and the decision to limit Tibetan to a single class. In the clampdown that followed, several teachers suspected of encouraging the protest were fired and the headmaster, a popular Tibetan writer, was sent to work on a dam project, according to local residents.
Tsering Kyi’s death has been widely publicized by Tibetan activist groups eager to draw attention to the self-immolations. The Chinese state news media, which has ignored most of the cases, reported that she was mentally unstable after hitting her head on a radiator. Her grades started to sag, the official Xinhua news agency said, “which put a lot of pressure on her and made her lose courage for life and study.”
In interviews, several Tibetan residents and relatives of Tsering Kyi’s contemptuously waved away such assertions. Instead, they were eager to discuss her devotion to her Tibetan heritage and the final moments of her life. When she emerged from the public toilets in flames, they said, the market’s Han Chinese vegetable sellers locked the front gate to prevent her from taking her protest to the street. No one, they claim, tried to douse the fire.
“These are intelligent people who knew what they were doing,” said Tenzin Choekyi of the Tibetan Youth Congress, a prominent Dharmsala, India-based activist group. “What is the ultimate thing you can offer? It’s your life.”
In Tibet, the horrific has become normal.
More than two dozen Tibetans, many in their teens or 20s, have set themselves on fire since early 2011 in an unprecedented series of suicide-protests. In the moments before they are overwhelmed by pain or tackled by Chinese security, they cry out for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, for an end to China’s crackdowns or for their homeland’s independence.
There is little sign that the immolations could lead to a broad uprising. But they have embarassed Beijing and are testing Chinese policies across the Tibetan plateau. The protests also have taken place far from the Tibetan heartland, showing opposition to Beijing’s rule is geographically more widespread than ever.