Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights

Tibetan Protests Begin to Spread

BEIJING, Feb 14 2012 (IPS) - An escalating number of unprecedented self-immolations and violent protests that have gripped Tibetan regions of Western China over recent weeks show no sign of abating, as the country reels from the worst Tibet crisis since the 2008 riots.

Tibetan prayer flags in Zhong Lu village, China's Sichuan province. Credit:  Mitch Moxley/IPS

Tibetan prayer flags in Zhong Lu village, China's Sichuan province. Credit: Mitch Moxley/IPS

Three Tibetan herders have allegedly set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese repression, the Beijing-based activist and author Tsering Woeser reported in her blog. A teenage nun has also set herself alight while shouting slogans against the government and in the latest immolation to hit the region this week, a teenage monk set himself on fire.

Radio Free Asia reported that the three herders called for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. However the Chinese government denies that the immolations took place.

If reports are confirmed, then the immolations will be the first by ordinary people, rather than monks or nuns, demonstrating the depth of discontent that has spread beyond the clergy to the wider population.

On Monday a 19-year-old monk, named Lobsang Gyatso, set himself ablaze in Aba county, Sichuan. According to rights groups, police allegedly beat the monk as they extinguished the flames and it is as yet uncertain whether he is still alive.

On Saturday, an 18-year old Tibetan nun called Tenzin Choedron also self-immolated in Sichuan’s Aba prefecture. The state mouthpiece Xinhua News Agency confirmed that the nun, who was a member of the Mamae Nunnery, died on the way to hospital.

Her death follows the self-immolation of a 19-year-old former monk from Kirti monastery, located in Ngaba county, Sichuan province, last week. The total number of Tibetans known to have self-immolated over the last year now stands at 20.

According to Tsering Woeser, the three herders self-immolated in Seda county, Sichuan province, on Friday, Feb. 3. It is believed that of the three, one has died and two remain seriously injured.

Seda county witnessed fatal protests late last month, as police fired into demonstrating crowds. While the number of deaths is unconfirmed, some human rights groups believe two died and others say up to 11 were killed.

Exact numbers are hard to verify as journalists and rights groups have been locked out of the area and authorities have cut off both the Internet and telephone connections in an attempt to contain the unrest. Other protests took place in Luhuo and Rangtang counties, also in Sichuan, Western China.

Xinhua, who blames “overseas forces” for attempting to “fabricate rumours”, reported that two protestors were shot dead by officers in an act of self-defence after violent rioters stormed police stations.

Robert Barnett, a Tibetan scholar at Columbia University, believes that growing protests and immolations testify to the spread of unrest.

“Before (protests) used to be just in the main city among the lower middle class groups, but now we are seeing also farmers and nomads in the countryside, and even some student demonstrations. It’s not just monks anymore. And there have been trials of famous leaders from the Tibetan business community too, extremely wealthy Tibetans who stood to gain the most from loyalty to the state,” Barnett tells IPS.

“Many more people than before are referring to independence openly or waving the forbidden Tibetan flag – perhaps people are bolder now, or perhaps nationalism has become more widespread,” he says.

A drastic step-up of security, combined with the increasing encroachment of police officers into monasteries – which are central to Tibetan communities – has provided a tipping point for many Tibetans.

Kirti monastery, home to the former monk Rinzin Dorje who self-immolated last week, has just celebrated the Great Prayer Festival (Monlam Chenmo in Tibetan), held from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8, in which locals partake in ritual dance, prayer and the unfolding of religious scrolls.

According to a report from the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), far-reaching security was stepped up for the festivities. ICT quotes exiled Kirti monks in Dharamsala, India, who say around 400 police disguised as officials planted themselves in the monastery for the festival.

“Ngaba people were searched, questioned and harassed wherever they went or wherever they stayed. From the early morning of Feb. 8, people were being stopped, searched and questioned one by one as they travelled into Ngaba county town and in the town itself, and the streets were filled with army, police and special police,” the source was quoted as saying in the report.

Ahead of the recent Chinese New Year, more than one million Chinese flags and portraits of Communist leaders were distributed by the regional government to Tibetan monasteries, schools and homes.

The government’s preemptive crackdowns, increased surveillance and invasion into everyday life demonstrates a starkly different response to the recent protest in the Chinese village Wukan. When villagers challenged widespread corruption and land-grabs late last year the government orchestrated a peaceful resolution.

“I am very concerned that if current policies continue unchanged, there will be a rise in self-immolations and in the Chinese government’s crackdown. It is even more worrying to think of things getting worse, like a possible massacre. It is clear that Tibetans are set on confrontation and (will not) give in,” Kanyag Tsering, an exiled Kirti monk living in Dharamsala, India, tells IPS.

“(Tibetans) must endure the most unbearable injustice and discriminatory cruelty and oppression day after day, month after month and year after year, until in the end they make this choice (to self-immolate and protest). Recently someone from Tibet told me ‘Even if all the Tibetans in Ngaba have to set themselves on fire, or be killed, we will have no regret’,” he adds.

“People are asking whether the government is listening, whether it is a deaf system,” says Barnett. “The worrying thing is that if the state continues to act aggressively, the situation could become severely polarised, making a solution much less likely in the foreseeable future.”

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  • Wang Zhi

    Since ancient times, there are a lot of people who caused riot in the name of religion. However, all these events have been proved irreligious. The violence hurt oneself or other people went against religious principles.

    Actually, the self-immolators live far better than people think. They were persuaded by some instigators and fooled by those who wanted to please someone by causing riot in China. They are the victims of blind worship.