Tibet: China's burning issue

Aba has seen so many self-immolations that police now carry fire extinguishers. Clifford Coonan and Tashi Tsering ventured to the area to find out what provoked these desperate acts

The monk doused his robes in kerosene then set himself alight, running with flames blazing about 200 metres down the street outside the Kirti monastery in Aba in China's Sichuan province, shouting in Tibetan. Armed police and soldiers ran towards him, one eyewitness said, but made no effort to extinguish the flames. "A stallholder brought a bucket of water to put out the fire. Then he was taken away by police – two days later he was dead," the witness said.

The desperate final act of the young man was one of a wave of self-immolations this year by Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, who are protesting against Chinese rule and calling for their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to be allowed to return home. Since March, 11 Tibetans have tried to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire. Six of those 11 have died.

The 540-year-old Kirti monastery in Aba town is at the centre of this wave of death. It has seen nine self-immolations this year, with five deaths. Such is the frequency of the acts that some riot police now carry fire extinguishers. Hundreds of monks from Kirti were taken away after the earliest immolation.

Overlooked by snow-capped peaks, Aba town is 3,200 metres above sea level, and Kirti monastery has become the focal point of Tibetan anger at what they see as efforts by China's ethnic Han majority to swamp Tibetan culture. Although Sichuan is not part of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, it has a sizeable Tibetan population, focused on two prefectures, Aba, which the Tibetans call Ngawa, and Ganzi, called Kardze in Tibetan. Around one million Tibetans live in these areas.

Since the immolations began, fear has come to Kirti, alongside a heavy police presence. A large bus for riot police is parked just outside the monastery and security personnel mill around. Inside the monastery, monks mingle with pilgrims, but are careful about talking to visitors, even though, one monk confides: "We have a lot to say."

"We have had no freedom for eight months, since nine monks burnt themselves," he said, asking not to be identified for his own safety. "Why did they do this? We want freedom. We are forced to say the Communist Party is great, we are not allowed to gather together to pray, and they have eyes and ears everywhere."

Another Tibetan, who is not a monk but sympathises with their cause, said: "Why do the monks burn themselves? We want to see the Dalai Lama." Most others were afraid to answer questions, worried about who might hear.

Beijing blames the Dalai Lama for encouraging the monks and nuns, and has punished those they say assisted the immolations. A court sentenced Tsering Tenzin to 13 years and Tenchum – who has one name only – to 10 years imprisonment for assisting in the death of a 16-year-old colleague, Rigzin Phuntsog, who set himself on fire in March. They were convicted of hiding Mr Phuntsog after he lit himself on fire and depriving him of medical attention for 11 hours. Altogether six monks have been convicted of involvement in the immolations.

The protests in Aba come amid a larger simmering unrest, which has often boiled over into violence. Areas with Tibetan populations see sporadic demonstrations calling for greater independence, and there was rioting in March 2008 focused on the Tibetan city of Lhasa. It spread to many other areas, including Aba, and was brutally suppressed. Overseas Tibetan groups say up to 30 people were shot dead in Aba alone. For the Han Chinese the demonstrations were a time of fear, with much of the rioting focused on Han Chinese-owned businesses.

Tibet's relationship with Beijing is extremely complex. Tibet has been under Beijing's command since the People's Liberation Army marched into the region in 1950 and Beijing claims it freed the Tibetan serfs from what was effectively a theocracy until the god-king Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959. The Chinese government says Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and accuses the Dalai Lama of being a dangerous separatist, who is using the immolations for political ends. For China, Tibet is, was and always will be Chinese, but the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala in northern India claims to represent the Tibetan people, and wants more autonomy for the regions.

An independent Tibet is also a very difficult political entity to conceive of. The Tibetan area stretches far beyond that known as the Tibetan Autonomous Region to include chunks of provinces such as Sichuan and Gansu, and many other areas across the vast highlands in the west of China. These regions also have large populations of Han Chinese, the dominant ethnic group in China, as well as people from other ethnic groups. China would not tolerate giving up such a vast swathe of land.

The Dalai Lama says that he does not want independence, but more autonomy for Tibetans within China. While the Chinese government says it does not believe him, much of its focus has been on improving the living standards of Tibetans in the belief that many of the political issues will fall by the wayside if people have enough food in their bellies.

In a time when China is wrestling with its conscience over the spiritual gap in the country's ethical code left by years of rampant materialism, there is admiration among the Han Chinese for the Tibetans' religious beliefs. "Many Chinese have lost their traditional values. But the Tibetans believe in the next life, so they are not afraid to die. The monks pray for those who burn themselves. But the government view is different. They don't want trouble. They need to keep the society stable for economic development," said one local in Aba.

And although there has been a dip in the number of self-immolations in Aba in recent months, the practice has spread to monks in other areas of the region. The sixth Tibetan Buddhist to die was a 35-year-old nun called Palden Choetso, from the Ganden Jangchub Choeling nunnery in Dawu County, which is part of the Ganzi prefecture. She reportedly shouted for the Dalai Lama to return home as she was engulfed in flames earlier this month. Another immolation took place in Kathmandu in Nepal, which borders Tibet, where a man wrapped in a Tibetan flag set himself on fire as he shouted "Long live Tibet."

Self-immolation has long been used as a dramatic political protest. In one of the most famous cases captured on camera in 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, sits immobile and cross-legged as his robes go up in flames, in a fatal protest against the treatment of Buddhists in Vietnam.

Although not a course of action recommended in Tibetan Buddhism, as life is revered, the self-immolations have not been expressly condemned by the Dalai Lama, although he has called them "desperate acts". One of the most senior Tibetan Buddhist leaders, the Karmapa Lama, has called on nuns and monks not to set themselves on fire, praising their bravery but asking them to adopt more constructive ways to further their cause.

"In Buddhist teaching, life is precious. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives. We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet," said the Karmapa Lama, who lives in exile along with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala.

Tashi Tsering is a pseudonym of a local reporter whose identity needs to be protected

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