The fatal self-immolation last week of Tashi Rabten, a 33-year-old Tibetan father of three, was the first such incident reported in several months, and the 146th since 2009. As in the past, Chinese authorities have sought to suppress and control related news, and in particular to portray the incident as an apolitical suicide. The U.S.-government funded Voice of America reported this week that three people had been detained for distributing video of the self-immolation. The similarly U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia reported other detentions, and claimed that some relatives appeared to have suffered abuse in custody:
Police in northwestern China’s Gansu province beat and tortured the wife and daughters of Tibetan self-immolator Tashi Rabten after taking them into custody for questioning following Rabten’s fatal protest last week, local sources say.
The abuse followed authorities’ demands that the three sign a document declaring that Rabten had set himself ablaze not in protest of Chinese policies, but because of problems at home, a Tibetan living in the area told RFA’s Tibetan Service.
“When his wife and two daughters refused to comply, the authorities beat and tortured them,” RFA’s source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
[…] Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Tibetan living in the area told RFA next day that witnesses to the protest heard Rabten “call out for freedom for Tibet and for the return of [exiled spiritual leader] the Dalai Lama.”
“He also called out for the release of the [detained] Panchen Lama, Gendun Choekyi Nyima,” RFA’s source said. [Source]
A letter purportedly written by Tashi Rabten and translated and published by Free Tibet also contradicts the claim that his suicide was apolitical:
Today, I am going to go far away from this world, but I believe I may come closer to the one we Tibetans have faith in. We are destined to follow such a path to search for and retrieve what we have already lost, and what is further and further away from us: our own Tibetan homeland. We are destined to self-immolate in protest for being kept apart from our own faith and nation.
[…] In conclusion, I have sent my message to you. I hope you will not think that I am joking. I am serious. What I wish to make people know is that we Tibetans are not scared of death, but in order to solve the issue peacefully, I was left with the only choice of self-immolating to warn people. What is necessary for Tibetan people is other people’s blessing and show of concern. We should be able to live like genuine people on our own land. Long live Tibetans! Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama! [Source]
Other moves in China’s ongoing campaign against the Dalai Lama’s influence include the sentencing on December 6 of seven Tibetans to between five and 14 years in prison for celebrating his 80th birthday last year. China has also been throttling trade across its border with Mongolia after the country allowed the Dalai Lama to make a visit which local Buddhist authorities defended as “purely religious.” India has offered economic support to Mongolia “in this time of their difficulty,” and dismissed Chinese protests at a recent meeting between the Dalai Lama and its own President Pranab Mukherjee, saying that the event was non-political.
While in Mongolia, the Dalai Lama told reporters that he had “no worries” about the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in the U.S. At ChinaFile this week, Melissa Chan suggested that “Trump’s team should arrange a visit early on in the presidency to reaffirm U.S. support of His Holiness’ ‘middle way’” as part of a generally more assertive posture towards China on human rights. On Friday, Lobsang Sangay, head of Tibet’s government in exile, similarly urged a shift away from “‘quiet backroom dialogue’” under the incoming president. According to Reuters, Sangay said that “the Tibetan movement had not formally approached the Trump camp but would do so soon as the president-elect assembles his cabinet team.”