Protesters burn themselves to death in struggle for autonomy

Breaking their vows, young Tibetan monks are self-immolating

Delhi, Dharamsala

The young monk sits in the front of a truck, the skin on his chest charred and mottled.

As the camera pans, you can see that his head is badly burned as well. There are pink splotches on his body where the skin has apparently disappeared entirely and the flesh is exposed. The young man doesn’t appear to make a sound.

Lobsang Phuntsog, a Tibetan Buddhist from Ngaba, set himself on fire on the afternoon of March 16 this year in protest over China’s continued occupation of his homeland. After a scuffle between monks and police, the young man, believed to be aged 21, was eventually taken to hospital. He died from his burns at around 3am the following morning.

His actions that day, the aftermath of which was captured on video footage seen by The Independent, was the first in a series of self immolations in eastern Tibet that have now turned into nothing less than a wave. In the past two weeks, at least five young Tibetans are known to have set themselves on fire, a macabre and markedly new episode in the struggle for autonomy, and a tactic that could force the Chinese authorities to review their behaviour.

“The monks are taking extreme steps, sending across messages to the world as to the reality and situation inside Tibet,” said Kusho Kanyag Tsering, a monk who fled Tibet as a young boy and who now lives in Dharamsala, in northern India. “They [give] their lives to show the suffering of the Tibetan people…They pay [with] their lives for the things they expected and what they want – freedom and justice.”

Six of the seven immolations that have been recorded this year have centred on the Kirti monastery in Ngaba, the location of a vociferous anti-Chinese protest by monks in the spring of 2008 that the Chinese crushed with force. Many monks were killed. Since then, the authorities have tightened security and put in place measures the monks say stops their way of life. Messages and footage smuggled out of the region and passed to colleagues in Dharamsala, headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile and home for more than half-a-century to the movement’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, suggest several thousand monks have been forced from the monastery in recent months and that those remaining struggle to conduct their usual religious rituals. Monks have been forced to participate in “patriotic re-education” sessions led by Chinese officials.

“The policies are against the monks’ traditional ways which is why the monks get frustrated and are compelled to do such an act,” said Lobsang Yeshi, a senior monk at one of the Kirti monastery’s sister complexes, established in Dharamsala. “Nowadays, almost one day or the other, we are hearing news of the grim situation that is surrounding the monastery.”

The most recent immolations took place last Friday when two teenaged former monks from Kirti set themselves alight in a main street in Ngaba. According to information collated by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), 19-year-old Choephel and 18-year-old Kayang – other reports give different names – clasped their hands together before setting themselves on fire. The flames that engulfed the two men, who had reportedly been disrobed by the Chinese authorities earlier this year, were extinguished by security forces and the teenagers were taken to the Ngaba County People’s Hospital. There are no confirmed details about their condition and there are reports one of them may have died.

Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the London-based ICT, said reports from Tibet suggested that in the days before the two young men acted, pamphlets had been found distributed in the town. They warned that if Chinese actions continued “more people were prepared to give up their lives in protest”. Ms Saunders said: “This has become a life and death struggle. It’s about sheer survival.”

The incident on Friday followed a similar event a week ago when Kalsang Wangchuk, an 18-year-old monk from Kirti, set himself alight close to a vegetable market in Ngaba, called Aba by the Chinese He was said to have been holding a photograph of the Dalai Lama and shouted slogans and he set himself on fire, reportedly incurring serious burns to his chest before the flames were extinguished. Before that, two more young monks from the monastery, Lobsang Kalsang and Lobsang Konchok, both believed to be aged either 18 or 19, set themselves on fire on September 26. They had reportedly waved a Tibetan flag and chanted “Love live the Dalai Lama”. Activists say their condition and location is unknown.

While the flurry of immolations has centred on Kirti, in August, 29-year-old Tsewang Norbu drank petrol, sprayed it on himself and set himself on fire in Tawa, located around 100 miles from Kirti. On that occasion the monk was reportedly heard shouting various slogans including “We Tibetan people want freedom” and “Long live the Dalai Lama” before he lit the flame. He is believed to have died at the scene.

Observers believe the self-immolations represent a distinct new chapter in the struggle by Tibetans against Chinese rule that has continued since Beijing seized control in  after 1950. With the exception of an incident in Delhi in 1996 and one in Tibet two years ago – that itself at Kirti - there is no known history of self-immolation and suicide is deeply frowned upon.

“It is now evident there are many courageous young Tibetans who are determined to draw global attention to one of the world's greatest and longest-standing human rights crises, no matter the cost to themselves,” said Stephanie Brigden, director of Free Tibet, a campaign group. “Tibetans are sharing news of this in online chat rooms and through word-of-mouth, images are being exchanged via text messages; Tibetans are determined that these acts do not go unnoticed.”

If the immolations continue, they will present a challenge not just for the Chinese authorities, who have yet to comment on the most recent incidents, but for the broader Tibetan community. During his years as both the spiritual and political leader of Tibetan Buddhists, the latter a position he handed over to an elected prime minister earlier this year, the Dalai Lama has always promoted a moderate, non-violent “middle way”. Last night, a spokesman for Nobel laureate said he was fully aware of the immolations and “concerned” but had yet to make a public statement.

But Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Karmapa, the third most senior figure within the Tibetan Buddhist community, has spoken on the issue. He recently told Time magazine:  “Monks take a vow that says they are not allowed to end their lives. But on the other hand, these actions are not for an individual, they are for a people.”

Beyond the immediate provocations, experts say Tibetans have grown increasingly frustrated and upset at the encroachment upon their culture inside Tibet and the lack of progress during talks with Chinese officials. Personal attacks upon the Dalai Lama, made with increasing frequency since 1994, also cause anxiety.

But it seems likely the most direct cause of the immolations is recent Chinese behaviour at Kirti and elsewhere. Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Programme at Columbia university in New York, said: “It’s certainly something new, there is no question about it. We have seen no precedent for this. This is a new development.”

Already, the immolations, deeply distressing for the Tibetan community and its supporters are having repercussions. More than a dozen young Tibetans were arrested yesterday while protesting outside the Chinese embassy in Delhi. In Dharamsala meanwhile, there have been candle-lit vigils.

Lobsang Wangyal, a Tibetan entrepreneur who lives in the town in the foothills of the Himalayas, said of what was happening in Tibet: “It is a desperate act by people who are suffering inside Tibet. It only reflects total failure of Chinese government policies. The monks are just asking simple things - to pray and to live with their own culture.”

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