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HindustanTimes Sat,23 Aug 2014

Tibet on fire: Is the world listening?

Agencies  New Delhi, March 29, 2012
First Published: 23:13 IST(29/3/2012) | Last Updated: 14:51 IST(1/4/2012)

A young Buddhist monk has become the latest to set himself on fire in southwest China, taking his own life to protest Beijing's rule, a rights group and exiles said on Thursday.

The 20-year-old monk, named Sherab, burned himself to death on Wednesday in his home town in Sichuan province's Aba county, London-based Free Tibet and exiled monks living in India said.

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He was the 30th Tibetan known to have set himself alight in China since a young monk self-immolated in March 2011 at the Kirti monastery sparking dramatic protests in Sichuan, which has a large population of ethnic Tibetans.

In Tibet, the horrific has become normal.

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 series of suicide-protests are unprecedented. 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 and for their homeland's independence.

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

Most of the immolations have occurred in ethnic Tibetan regions in China's Sichuan and Qinghai provinces.

"The self-immolations don't hurt anybody else. They just want people to see that there are problems here," said a young schoolteacher in trendy faded jeans in the small Tibetan town of Hongyuan, in China's Sichuan province. He spoke on condition of anonymity fearing retribution by Chinese officials.

Until recently, though, 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 March 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 nine so far in March, activists say.

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

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Jamphel Yeshi, the 27-year-old who died after setting himself on fire in New Delhi to protest against Chinese President Hu Jintao's India visit, like many others came from the eastern parts of the historical area of Tibet, outside the current "Tibetan Autonomous Region" but he is a layman not a monk and is already in exile.

Yeshi burned himself in front of hundreds of people, during the protest largely by Tibetans, and shocking images of Yeshi on fire angered Tibetan exiles in India but also those around the world. Within hours, the pictures had been posted on blogs and social-networking websites.

Yeshi left a letter urging his fellow Tibetans to fight for their rights.

"The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering," the letter stated.

"It's not that these people are radical, it is that China's policies, especially since its decision in the 1990s to insult the Dalai Lama and to treat monasteries as threats, has turned a formerly complex Tibetan cultural sphere into a relatively unified sphere of political dissent," Robert Barnett, a professor of modern Tibetan history at Columbia University, said in an email to AP.

But why suicide by self-immolation? No one knows.

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; Chinese monks who killed themselves in political protests during the last imperial dynasty.

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

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters that the Dalai Lama and his aides were trying to incite more self-immolations, calling their activities "terrorism in disguise."

Meanwhile, a handful of Tibetans have begun to speak out against the self-immolations.

Tsering Woeser, a well-known poet living under virtual house arrest in Beijing, posted a recent online appeal calling for an end to the suicides, signing the appeal with two other Tibetan intellectuals.

"Tibetans must cherish life and live with resilience. Regardless of the magnitude of oppression, our life is important, and we have to cherish it," the March 8 appeal said.

At least six Tibetans have set themselves on fire since then.

(With inputs from AP)

In Pictures: Tibet Burning | Prayers for Yeshi | Tibetan sets himself on fire

HT Poll: Is self-immolation a justified act of protest?

From HT's editorial: Like a butter lamp in the wind | No smoke without fire

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