How many self-immolating Tibetans does it take to make a difference?

Ishaan Tharoor reports: On Wednesday morning in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, a Tibetan monk drenched in gasoline appeared in front of a Buddhist stupa popular among Tibetans and set himself aflame. At the time of writing, the young man, thought to be in his early 20s, is in critical condition. According to some reports, his fiery protest marks a grim milestone: it’s the 100th such self-immolation by a Tibetan to happen since 2009 (others suggest it’s the 99th or the 101st).

Whatever the ghastly metric, the act has become the signature tactic in recent years of Tibetans voicing their frustrations with Chinese rule. It carries a haunting moral cry no suicide bomber can match. When one downtrodden Tunisian set himself alight in December 2010, the spark of his despair and anger kindled uprisings that swept across the Arab world. Yet, 100 Tibetan self-immolations — and many deaths — later, little has changed.

Part of the problem is where these protests occur. The overwhelming majority takes place within the borders of China, either in Tibet proper or in Tibetan areas of neighboring Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Media access is heavily controlled and much of what we know comes from advocacy groups based outside. A white paper titled “Why Tibet Is Burning,” released last month by an institute affiliated with the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, identifies by name 98 Tibetans who carried out self-immolations in China since February 2009. Many of those choosing to set themselves on fire are young teenagers and 20-somethings. They are farmers and aspiring clerics, nomads and students. In a foreword to the study, Lobsang Sangay, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Tibet’s exiles, urges Tibetans to “not to resort to drastic actions, including self-immolations, because life is precious.” But the study goes on to point the finger at Beijing:

The reason [for all the self-immolations] lies in China’s massive policy failure in Tibet over the course of more than 60 years of its rule. The revolution that is brewing in Tibet is driven by political repression, cultural assimilation, social discrimination, economic marginalization and environmental destruction.

China, of course, doesn’t see it this way. The likelihood of a Tibetan revolution — or even the rioting of not so long ago — is dwarfed by the specter of a Beijing crackdown. Authorities have already started detaining and jailing Tibetans they claim are “inciting” self-immolations; one such swoop earlier this month in the rugged province of Qinghai netted 70 suspects. Quoted by Chinese state media, a local official echoed China’s longstanding critique of any Tibetan dissent: “The Dalai Lama clique masterminded and incited the self-immolations. Personal information, such as photos of the victims, were sent overseas to promote the self-immolations.”

The Dalai Lama, the increasingly withdrawn spiritual leader of Tibetans-in-exile, has long promoted a “middle way” of dialogue and nonviolent resistance, and has also urged against Tibetans carrying out self-immolations. According to a BBC report last year, the steady toll of self-immolations was being interpreted by some angry Tibetans overseas as a sign that the Dalai Lama’s timid, largely failed policies of engagement ought to be given up. “Violence could now be the only option,” said one influential Tibetan activist to the BBC. [Continue reading...]

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As self-immolations near 100, Tibetans question the effect

The New York Times reports: A crowd of Tibetans came here to India’s capital last week, bearing flags and political banners and a bittersweet mixture of hope and despair. A grim countdown was under way: The number of Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet had reached 99, one short of an anguished milestone.

Yet as that milestone hung over the estimated 5,000 Tibetans who gathered in a small stadium, so did an uncertainty about whether the rest of the world was paying attention at all. In speeches, Tibetan leaders described the self-immolations as the desperate acts of a people left with no other way to draw global attention to Chinese policies in Tibet.

“What is forcing these self-immolations?” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, asked in an interview. “There is no freedom of speech. There is no form of political protest allowed in Tibet.”

Billed as the Tibetan People’s Solidarity Campaign, the four-day gathering featured protests, marches, Buddhist prayer sessions and political speeches in an attempt to push Tibet back onto a crowded international agenda. If the Arab Spring has inspired hope among some Tibetans that political change is always possible, it has also offered a sobering reminder that no two situations are the same, nor will the international community respond in the same fashion.

“The world is paying attention, but not enough,” Mr. Sangay added. “There was a self-immolation in Tunisia which was labeled the catalyst for the Arab Spring. We’ve been committed to nonviolence for many decades. And how come we have been given less support than what we witnessed in the Arab world?” [Continue reading...]

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Wave of Tibet self-immolations challenges Chinese rule

The New York Times reports: One young Tibetan monk walked down a street kicking Chinese military vehicles, then left a suicide note condemning an official ban on a religious ceremony. Another smiled often, and preferred to talk about Buddhism rather than politics. A third man, a former monk, liked herding animals with nomads.

All had worn the crimson robes of Kirti Monastery, a venerable institution of learning ringed by mountains on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau. All set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. Two died.

At least 38 Tibetans have set fire to themselves since 2009, and 29 have died, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group in Washington. The 2,000 or so monks of Kirti Monastery in Sichuan Province have been at the center of the movement, one of the biggest waves of self-immolations in modern history. The acts evoke the self-immolations in the early 1960s by Buddhist monks in South Vietnam to protest the corrupt government in Saigon.

Twenty-five of the self-immolators came from Ngaba, the county that includes Kirti; 15 were young monks or former monks from Kirti, and two were nuns from Mame Dechen Chokorling Nunnery.

Chinese paramilitary units are now posted on every block of the town of Ngaba, and Kirti is under lockdown. Journalists are barred from entering the monastery, which has made the question of how Kirti became the volcanic heart of this eruption of self-immolations something of a mystery.

But monks and laypeople from Ngaba who have fled across the Himalayas to this Indian hill town said that Kirti had been radicalized in the last four years by an occupation of the monastery that amounted to one of the harshest crackdowns in Tibet. Chinese security measures have converted the white-walled monastery, with its temples and dormitories and rows of prayer wheels, into a de facto prison, which has fueled the anger that the measures are aimed at containing.

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Tibetan self-immolations rise as China tightens grip

The New York Times reports: Like many children of Tibetan nomads, Tsering Kyi started school relatively late, at age 10, but by all accounts she made up for lost time by studying with zeal.

“Even when she was out at pasture with her parents’ flock, there was always a book in her hand,” a cousin said.

That passion for learning apparently turned to despair this month when the Maqu County Tibetan Middle School, in Gansu Province near Tibet, switched to Chinese from Tibetan as the language of instruction. The policy shift has incited protests across the high-altitude steppe that is home to five million Tibetans and a far greater number of ethnic Han Chinese.

On March 3, a few days before the start of the spring semester, Tsering Kyi, 20, emerged from a public toilet at the town’s produce market, her wispy frame bound in gasoline-soaked blankets that had been encircled with wire, relatives and local residents said.

In a flash she was a heap of flames, her fist raised defiantly, before falling to the ground, residents said. She died at the scene.

Over the past year 29 Tibetans, seven of them in the last three weeks, have chosen a similarly agonizing, self-annihilating protest against Chinese policies. Of those, 22 have died.

Beijing, alarmed about the threat to stability in a region seething with discontent over religious and cultural controls, has responded with an assortment of heavy-handed measures. Officials have described the self-immolators as outcasts and terrorists, blamed the pernicious influence of Tibetan exiles and flooded the region with checkpoints and paramilitary police officers in flak jackets.

Communist Party leaders have also introduced a “monastic management” plan to more directly control religious life. As part of the plan, 21,000 party officials have been sent to Tibetan communities with the goal of “befriending” monks — and creating dossiers on each of them. Compliant clergy members are rewarded with health care benefits, pensions and television sets; the recalcitrant are sometimes expelled from their monasteries.

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Tibetan acts of self-immolation rise amid the battle for hearts and minds

The Guardian reports: On the roof of the world, Chinese paramilitaries are trying to snuff out Tibetan resistance to Beijing’s rule with spiked batons, semi-automatic weapons and fire extinguishers.

Every 20 metres along the main road of Aba, the remote town on the Tibetan plateau in that is at the heart of the current wave of protests, police officers and communist officials wearing red armbands look out for potential protesters. Dozens more paramilitaries sit in ranks outside shops and restaurants in an intimidating show of force.

At the nearby Kirti monastery, Chinese officers in fire trucks keep a close eye on pilgrims prostrating themselves, in case their devotion turns to immolation.

Outsiders are not supposed to see this. The Chinese authorities have gone to great lengths to block access to Aba, in north-western Sichuan, which is home to more than half the 23 monks, nuns and lay Buddhists who have set fire to themselves in acts of defiance aimed at the Chinese Communist party in the past two years.

The authorities have blocked internet and mobile phone signals. Checkpoints have been set up on surrounding roads to keep outside observers, particularly foreign journalists, away.

But after a 10-hour drive through mountain valleys and snow-covered plains, the Guardian was able to get into Aba and witness how the authorities are trying to quell dissent with security, propaganda and “re-education” campaigns. These tactics have had little success. Despite flooding Aba with security personnel, the protests continue.

The latest occurred on Saturday. Tenzin Choedron, an 18-year-old nun, shouted anti-Chinese protests as she ignited her petrol-soaked body in Aba, exile groups said. Her whereabouts and condition are now unknown.

Three days earlier, a former Kirti monk sacrificed himself in similarly horrific fashion. Rinzin Dorje, was taken to a hospital but his whereabouts and wellbeing are also unclear.

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