China powerless to prevent rise in Tibetan self-immolations

 

New Delhi

As China's Communist Party prepares for its leadership transition, a wave of self-immolations has spread and accelerated across Tibet, in the most sustained protests against Beijing's rule there in five decades.

Most of those who have set themselves afire are in their late teens or early 20s, activists said. Exiled Tibetan political leaders and scholars described the actions as an emphatic rejection of the economic development and material gains that China is offering the Tibetan people and an anguished call for independence and the return of the region's religious leader, the Dalai Lama.

"Almost all of them were born after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution," Lobsang Sangay, the political leader of the refugee community's India-based government-in-exile said of the perpetrators. "They have grown up in the Chinese system, received Chinese education. They are the primary beneficiaries of whatever the Chinese government gave them. They are saying 'this is not what we want.' "

Last week alone, seven people doused themselves in gasoline and set fire to themselves in eastern Tibet, including two cousins in their 20s who called for "freedom for Tibet" before setting themselves ablaze in front of a government building. At least 62 people have set themselves on fire inside Tibet since February 2009, and all but nine are known to have died, the Free Tibet group says.

It is not certain if the latest acceleration of the protests is timed to send a signal to the Chinese Communist Party Congress, which meets from Nov. 8 to install a new leadership in Beijing.

Nevertheless, the protests appear to have embarrassed the Chinese leadership, which has responded by intensifying its crackdown, activists and scholars say.

China says it rescued the Tibetan people from medieval serfdom under the Dalai Lama's theocratic rule when it took over in 1950 and in recent years has poured money into the region to build roads, a high-speed railway and projects such as rural electrification.

It blames the self-immolations on the old regime's attempts to split the country. "This is shameful and should be condemned," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference last week.

But many Tibetans appear to view the perpetrators as heroes, sometimes trying to prevent Chinese police removing their bodies, laying ceremonial scarves at protest sites, or paying tribute to their families.

"Tibetans are responding to China's repressive policies, to seeing their neighbors, friends and families attacked, harassed, beaten and jailed," said Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute. "The self-immolations are a response to escalating repression, which the Chinese meet with more repression, and we are in this vicious cycle."

In the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Tibet was engulfed in protests and riots that saw hundreds killed and thousands arrested. Since then, China has tightened its grip on the high plateau, in what many Tibetans have described as an attack on their language, religion and culture.

The self-immolations spread from an important monastery in the town of eastern Tibetan town of Aba, taking off as form of protest in March last year. Most of the initial protesters were monks or former monks, but most of the latest are lay people, including farmers, students, and a writer.

The protests have spread across eastern Tibet and even to Lhasa, the region's main city, prompting a renewed crackdown there, activists say. Foreign tourists are already banned from visiting Tibet, but now Tibetans from outside the city are unable to travel there without a residence document, in an attempt to stop further incidents, activists say.

In other areas where self-immolations have taken place, Internet access and telephones have been cut off, sometimes for months, activists say.

Police in one region recently issued flyers offering rewards of nearly $8,000 for tips about planned self-immolations and up to $30,000 for information about the "black hands" who supposedly organized four such acts in the area.

"Local authorities are under pressure from the central government to put an end to this," said Elliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University. "But this is a form of protest that doesn't need a conspiracy, it just needs a person. These flyers seem to me to be somewhat desperate."

The protests have spread because the "tactic is resonating," said Sperling, although some activists said the recent spurt could be linked to the imminent Communist Party Congress meeting.

One of the men who set himself ablaze last week had called a friend the day before and asked when the congress was taking place, said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet in London, adding he had complained the Chinese government was doing nothing to improve conditions inside Tibet.

"This is the first direct evidence we've had that Tibetans are factoring this into the decision to self-immolate so close to Party Congress time."

While Sangay renewed his appeal for Tibetans not to take such "drastic action", the Dalai Lama has taken a more neutral line on what he said was a "very, very delicate political issue."

"Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me," he told India's Hindu newspaper in July. "If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong."

In September, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke paid a rare visit to Aba, the restive area where many of the self-immolations have taken place, and visited monasteries. He called the incidents "very deplorable."

"We implore the Chinese to really meet with the representatives of the Tibetan people to address and reexamine some of the policies that have led to some of the restrictions and the violence and the self-immolations," Locke told an online forum Monday. "We very much believe there should be respect for the culture and religion of the Tibetan people, as well as the language of the Tibetan people."

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Life and Style
Alexander McQueen A/W 2014
fashionPolitics aside, tartan is on-trend again this season
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
Sport
Joel jumps over the board...and into a giant hole
footballFrom joy to despair in a matter of seconds
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Life and Style
i100

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Nursery assistants required in Cambridge

£10000 - £15000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Nursery assistants re...

Year 4 Teacher

£20000 - £31000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to wo...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week