Dawa Tsering said little before he set himself ablaze before a crowd of onlookers in the Tibetan town of Kardze, high in the mountains of China’s Sichuan province. “Long live his holiness the Dalai Lama!” are the only words witnesses remember the monk shouting before the fire.
Protests against Chinese rule have been a regular feature in and around the Tibetan Autonomous Region for decades. But the last few months have seen them turn darker, more violent and more desperate.
When Mr. Tsering lit himself on fire Tuesday, it marked the 10th self-immolation this year, all of them in Tibetan-populated parts of Sichuan. All of those who torched themselves were either monks or former monks or, in one case, a Buddhist nun. Eight of the 10 self-immolations have occurred since Sept. 26. Six of them were teenagers.
Chinese authorities are clearly spooked. A brief video taken by an Agence France-Presse cameraman who reached the area (which is closed to foreigners) showed the town of Aba, where the self-immolations began, flooded with soldiers and vehicles of the People’s Armed Police, a force tasked with internal security. Many of the soldiers shown in the video were equipped with riot gear; others had assault rifles. Tellingly, some carried fire extinguishers.
Though the exiled Dalai Lama opposes the tactic, Beijing accused him of supporting “terrorism in disguise” after he lead prayers and fasted in honour of the seven monks who had died as the result of their burns.
What’s going on?
Something completely new. Before this spring, there had only been one known self-immolation by a Tibetan monk inside China. Many believe Phuntsog, the 21-year-old who lit himself ablaze in March on Aba’s main street near the 540-year-old Kirti Monastery (which sits in Sichuan, just outside the official borders of the Tibetan Autonomous Region), was marking the third anniversary of the 2008 Tibetan uprising that was quelled by Chinese troops.
His act may have inspired others. Seven of the other nine self-immolations since then have taken place near Kirti, including last-week’s self-immolation by Tenzin Wangmo, a 20-year-old nun.
“It’s absolutely unprecedented. In Buddhism, all life is sacred, so it’s particularly unusual for a Tibetan monk or nun to take their own life,” said Stephanie Brigden, director of the London-based Free Tibet lobby group. “The fact that they’re now using self-immolation as a mechanism is an illustration of how desperate the situation has become inside Tibet.”
Mr. Tsering, the latest to light himself on fire, was the oldest of the 10 to do so, at age 31.
China has long blamed the Dalai Lama, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who makes his home in exile in northern India, for inciting all unrest inside Tibet.
Tibetan groups, meanwhile, point the finger of blame at Beijing, which activists say has been escalating pressure on Tibetans since the 2008 riots. A recent report by New York-based Human Rights Watch found that Chinese security spending per person had quadrupled in Aba between 2005 and 2009.
In the Kardze region, 150 kilometres away, the group says that a heightened crackdown included “brutal security raids, arbitrary detentions of monks, increased surveillance within monasteries, and a permanent police presence inside monasteries to monitor religious activities.”
What do the monks hope to accomplish?
The spate of self-immolations seems likely to achieve the goal of drawing attention to the Tibetan cause, which is often pushed off the agenda as foreign leaders – some of them seeking financial help from the cash-rich Chinese government – seek to stay on Beijing’s good side.
Others believe the monks may have been motivated by Mohammed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia late last year, which set in motion uprisings across the Arab world.
How has Beijing responded?
In addition to the escalated military presence in the Tibetan areas of Sichuan, more troops have reportedly been deployed in and around Lhasa, the Tibetan capital. Tibetan groups say at least six monks have been sentenced in connection with the self-immolations, while 300 others from Kirti Monastery were forced to undergo “patriotic re-education.”
This week, the Communist Party is in the process of introducing a new anti-terrorism law that, for the first time, will explicitly name individuals and organizations Beijing considers “terrorists.”