Concerns are mounting over the situation in ethnic Tibetan areas, with the recent spate of self-immolation protests and the corresponding crackdown by security forces. Aba and Ganzi have been particularly hard-hit, especially Kirti Monastery, where many of the self-immolations have been carried out. The Economist reports:
Officials have reason to be fearful. For Tibetans, self-immolation is a new form of protest. Such acts are difficult for the authorities to prevent, and images of them can have a powerful psychological effect among sympathisers. Eleven Tibetans have tried to kill themselves this way since March. Six have succeeded, the latest a 35-year-old nun in Ganzi on November 3rd.
On October 19th Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, held a prayer ceremony for the dead in Dharamsala, the Indian town where he now lives in exile. China’s foreign ministry accused him of inciting “terrorism in disguise”. Fire extinguishers have become the accoutrement of choice for police patrols (see picture) as far away as Lhasa, the Tibetan capital some 1,200km south-west of Songpan.
The anger and desperation that has prompted Tibetans to set fire to themselves is common across the plateau. In all of China’s Tibetan-inhabited areas, the authorities have rounded up innumerable monks, nuns and laypeople for taking part in the 2008 unrest. Reports of torture are rife. Many monks have been forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, who even in Songpan, where things are relatively calm, is deeply revered by Tibetans. This correspondent was often asked for news of him. “You can’t call yourself a monk unless you support the Dalai Lama”, says a Songpan resident.
But Aba and Ganzi share an additional layer of resentment. Both prefectures saw the only well-documented cases of police firing on demonstrators in 2008 (20-30 people may have been shot dead in Aba town). Unlike Songpan county, where monasteries are small and scattered, Aba’s main monastery, called Kirti, is large and central. Monks at Kirti have been particularly prominent in the prefecture’s unrest, and the monastery is now under heavy police guard.
A report in the Guardian reports that such protests are likely to continue and even increase, according to residents of the region:
On Thursday monks who have recently made the perilous journey across the Himalayas to exile in India claimed leaflets were circulating in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China listing the names of scores of young people ready to publicly burn themselves alive to protest against Chinese policies .
Senior monks from the Kirti monastery in Aba county, the centre of the protests so far, told the Guardian that they feared it was inevitable many more would die over the coming months.
“I am 100% sure there will be more. The situation is suffocating and there is no other way to demonstrate anger,” said Kanyang Tsering, 32, a monk from Kirti living in Dharamsala.
Exiled leaders of Tibet have been quick to lay the blame at the feet of Chinese policy in the region. The Dalai Lama recently proclaimed what was happening to Tibetans in China, “cultural genocide,” while Lobsang Songay, the new Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, offered support and compassion for those burning themselves. From Reuters:
Lobsang Sangay, the Harvard educated lawyer who this year replaced the Dalai Lama as the political leader of the exiled Tibetans, said an increased Chinese military presence around monasteries was “undeclared martial law.”
“Once a protest takes place it becomes our sacred duty to show solidarity and support, support for the voice that they raise, so the life that they sacrifice or the torture that they endure do not go in vain,” Sangay told Reuters.
“My duty as a political leader is echo or if possible magnify these voices, with sadness and pain obviously,” he said at his offices in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala in India.
The religious head also urged the Chinese leadership to “heed Tibetans’ legitimate demands and to enter into meaningful dialogue with them instead of brutally trying to achieve their silence.”
“The situation is unbearably difficult, but in difficult situations we need greater courage and determination,” said the Karmapa, urging the Tibetans in Tibet to preserve their lives.
According to an AFP report, other Tibetan exiles have mixed feelings on the use of self-immolation as a protest tactic:
..Some feel the ends justify the means, others are staunchly opposed to suicide or attempted suicide on religious grounds.
A culture of self-censorship due to heavy Chinese security and restrictions placed on reporters in the remote Himalayan province, make measuring opinion inside Tibet extremely difficult.
Geshey Lobsang, a monk at the monastery of the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, the Tibetan spiritual leader’s home-in-exile in India, says when it comes to suicide the teachings of Buddhism are ambiguous.
“It is sin to destroy one’s body, but Buddhist philosophy also states that every action should be driven by good motivation and reason,” he told AFP.
The dangerous form of protest seems to be spreading as a Tibetan exile in Kathmandu, Nepal set himself on fire but did not suffer serious injury. Tibetans in India, meanwhile, have been protesting a recent Bollywood film, Rockstar, which blurs an image of the Tibetan flag during one song sequence.
See also: “Immolation, Explosions and Poetry on the Roof of the World” from CDT.