Two Self-Immolations in Lhasa, City’s First (Updated)

Two unidentified Tibetan monks reportedly set fire to themselves in front of Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple on Sunday. From Radio Free Asia:

“The security forces arrived immediately and put out the fire and all the tourists in the area were cordoned off from the site. Within 15 minutes, the area was cleaned and not a trace of the incident was left at the site,” an eyewitness told RFA.

“The flames were huge and witnesses are presuming that they [the two] were dead in the fire,” one Tibetan source living in exile said, citing contacts in the region.

“Lhasa city is now filled with police and para-military forces and the situation is very tense,” the source said.

While there have been 35 self-immolations in Tibetan areas since March 2009, this would be only the second within the Tibetan Autonomous Region itself, and the first to take place in the capital. Columbia University Tibetologist Robert Barnett commented on the incident on Twitter:

News of the incident is so far scarce, with state media silent [Update: see below] and foreign reporters barred from the region. In addition, phone lines in the region were quickly blocked, according to exile news site Phayul. As Kristin Jones wrote for the Committee to Protect Journalists in February, the government’s media exclusion policy “all but guarantee[s] that activists are the ones reporting the news.”

Update: Xinhua has confirmed the incident:

Dargye, from Aba county in the Tibetan area of southwest China’s Sichuan province, and Tobgye Tseten, from Xiahe county in a Tibetan community of the country’s northwestern Gansu province, attempted the self-immolations at 2:16 p.m. on Pargor Street in the heart of Lhasa, the publicity department of Tibet’s regional committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) said in a press release early Monday.

It said police on patrol put out the flames in two minutes and sent the men to hospital. Tobgye Tseten died and Dargye survived with injuries ….

Downtown Lhasa is particularly crowded these days as Tibetans celebrate the Saga Dawa, which falls on the 15th day of the 4th month in the Tibetan calendar and marks the anniversary of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death ….

A senior official in Tibet condemned the Lhasa self-immolations on Sunday, saying they were separatist attempts.

The New Yorker recently featured a history of self-immolation and its status as “the paramount form of protest”, following a series of cases this year across North Africa and the Middle East, and one in Norway, as well as those in Tibetan areas.

The recent Tibetan self-immolations remind us that the practice’s longest history is in China, where, beginning in the fourth century A.D., Buddhist monks took to sitting in pyres to propitiate ganying, the force that binds the corporeal and ethereal. “I have been weary of this physical frame for many a long day,” the monk Daodu said before melting to death. His forebear Fayu started the trend of swallowing incense chips beforehand, perhaps to lubricate his soul’s passage, perhaps to improve the odor of the proceedings. Soon enough, self-burnings became public performances. Officials attended. Crowds wept in admiration. And as the orders took on political power, so did self-immolation. Monks burned themselves to protest declining patronage from the ruling classes or to lament invasions. As the Quing dynasty disintegrated, on the eve of the First World War, there was a wave of self-immolations in protest of the decline of… well, of the world, so it seemed.