Propaganda and restrictions have done little to stop the suicides
Beijing clamps down as self-immolations pass 100
With the recent self-immolation of three more Tibetans in their 20s in Sichuan and Gansu provinces, China, the number of cases has passed 100 since 2009.
Of the 101 known cases of Tibetans setting themselves on fire, 62 died on the spot, 23 perished after their arrest, 14 others disappeared after being forcibly taken away and one died during a subsequent hunger strike after receiving treatment in a temple. Just one person has survived, notes Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan freelance writer based in Beijing.
Sangjey Kep, editor of Tibetan Bulletin published by Tibet’s government in exile in Dharamshala, India, points out that the number of self-immolations peaked in November when the Communist Party held its National Congress and transferred power to a new elite led by Xi Jinping as president.
“There were 28 cases, almost one per day,” he says.
In December, the Chinese government issued an opinion article defining self-immolation as a criminal act, meaning those who set themselves on fire in protest would be prosecuted. The threat also extended to family members and those who attend the funerals of self-immolators.
Extending the threat even further, the article noted that authorities would cut electricity and water supplies to areas where these macabre protests occur.
After the warning was published, the tide of self-immolations slowed but picked up again in January as restrictions increased on Tibetans’ religious freedom, says Kep.
Besides tightening controls in western provinces where Tibetans live, the Chinese government has strengthened propaganda to denounce the act.
The State Administration for Religious Affairs held a meeting in Beijing in mid-January with Han, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhist leaders to reinforce the message that setting oneself on fire violates religious teachings.
Meanwhile, the official Xinhua News Agency reported last week that eight Tibetans were convicted of intentional homicide and criminal provocation after they “incited, lured, instigated or forced” others to burn themselves.
Taking aim at the “Dalai Lama clique”, China’s state-run news agency accused the exiled spiritual leader of advocating that “self-immolation does not violate Buddhist teaching” and for seducing young people to join their secessionist aims.
Exiled Tibetan political leader Lobsang Sangay said in December that, although he discourages self-immolating, it remained the “sacred duty” of Tibetans in exile to support the practice.
Among copies of about 30 immolators’ last words, Woeser notes that some expressed strong hope for their fellow Tibetans’ genuine freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama.
However, Kep says there is little evidence that any Tibetans actively support self-immolation.
Kep argues that if Tibetans know in advance that their relatives, neighbors and friends are planning to self-immolate, they would certainly stop them.
But when the self-immolators have already “burned their lives,” the onlookers, despite feeling painfully sad, would “bar the police from approaching self-immolators or taking their bodies away,” he says.
Those that survive would be tortured which makes living worse than death, says Kep, adding that it remained unclear whether self-immolation violated religious teachings – as claimed by Beijing – because the act is designed to help the freedom of compatriots rather than themselves.
“They are heroes, they deserve our respect,” he says.
Most of those who have set themselves on fire have felt that they were in a desperate situation having lost the opportunity to learn Buddhist teachings and their Tibetan culture while suffering rising marginalization as authorities started to close many Buddhist academies in April, says Woeser.
Immolators are often young, mostly nomads, while monks made up the second-largest category, she says.
Many are desperate to avoid surviving the ordeal over fears of being taken in by Chinese authorities. As a result, they often drink kerosene, as well as pour it on themselves, or even take poison before they begin.
The responsibility to avoid these tragedies lies with the government, says Woeser, whose articles are denied publication in China and whose name is filtered by internet search engines.
Beijing needs to guarantee equal rights for Tibetans and reduce the militarization of Tibetan areas, she says. “Don’t let the Tibetan people always live with a gun pointing at their backs.”
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