Giving their lives in protest

Tibetans are setting themselves on fire to demonstrate against Chinese rule, write Tim Sullivan and Gillian Wong

FOR more than a year the deadly protests have swept the Tibetan plateau, waves of people burning themselves alive in a widening challenge to Chinese rule.

The prime minister of Tibet’s government-in-exile calls them acts of desperation. The Dalai Lama says they give China an excuse for even harsher crackdowns. To many Tibetans, they are carefully reasoned attempts to bring attention to an often-forgotten cause.

“These are intelligent people who knew what they were doing,” says Tenzin Choekyi of the Tibetan Youth Congress.

“What is the ultimate thing you can offer? It’s your life.”

In Tibet, the horrific has become normal. More than two dozen Tibetans, many in their teens or 20s, have set themselves on fire since early 2011 in an unprecedented series of suicide protests. In the moments before they are overwhelmed by pain or tackled by Chinese security, they cry out for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, for an end to China’s crackdowns or for their homeland’s independence.

There is little sign that the immolations could lead to a broad uprising, but they have embarrassed Beijing and are testing Chinese policies. The protests have also taken place far from the Tibetan heartland, showing opposition to Beijing’s rule is geographically more widespread than ever.

While the most restive towns have been effectively sealed off, some details have emerged: The Buddhist monk who drank petrol before dousing himself with fuel and setting himself alight; the two young men who set themselves on fire, then ran together into the streets shouting for the return of the Dalai Lama; the nun, seen in a video distributed by activists, who walked along a busy street while engulfed in flames. At one point, a woman tosses a white scarf — a Tibetan offering of respect — at her feet.

“The self-immolations don’t hurt anybody else. They just want people to see that there are problems here,” says one young teacher.

Until recently, such protests were rare among Tibetans, raised in an enveloping Buddhist culture that normally discourages suicide.

While there had been a handful of earlier Tibetan suicide protests, the recent surge began on Mar 16, 2011, when a 20-year-old monk at Sichuan’s Kirti monastery burned himself alive, apparently to mark the anniversary of a 2008 protest brutally crushed by Chinese forces.

The burnings spiked in October and then again in January. There have been at least seven in March.

The Kirti monastery, which has emerged as a centre of political activism, has been the focus of the protests, with at least 14 current and former monks among the self-immolators.

The monastery and the town around it, Aba, have been flooded with Chinese forces. Soldiers and police in riot gear line the town’s streets, and more have been posted inside the monastery. But they have been unable to stop the protests.

Why suicide by self-immolation? Some see inspiration in the Arab spring, and the Tunisian vegetable seller who helped inspire it by setting himself on fire. Others look to a history of Buddhist immolators: Vietnamese monks who burned themselves alive in the 1960s, angry over government crackdowns.

Beijing, though, sees them as part of a decades-long campaign by the Dalai Lama to carve Tibet away from China.

A year after the suicides began, many details are unanswered.


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