ucanews.com reporter, BeijingUpdated: May 24, 2016 04:56 AM GMT
A Chinese paramilitary policeman stands guard in front of the Potala palace in Lhasa on June 20, 2008. Since "peacefully liberating" Tibet in 1951 the Chinese government has instituted increasingly hard-line policies that have damaged Tibetan culture and religion, say human rights groups. (Photo by AFP)
When Sonam Tso, a mother of five, set her body on fire and killed herself in a protest calling for the return of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, on March 23, it took six weeks for the outside world to find out.
Sonam Tso died in a monastery after her husband and a Tibetan Buddhist monk tried to put out the flames in Aba, Sichuan province. Police then called in her husband for questioning three times, and the monk who also tried to save her was detained for eight days as Chinese authorities tried to contain news of this latest self-immolation, the third this year.
"Although it is common for local authorities to shut down communications after protests and threaten Tibetans if they share information, it is very unusual for information of a protest to take so long to emerge,"said London-based Free Tibet, reporting the self-immolation on May 7.
China marked the 65-year anniversary of its "peaceful liberation" of Tibet by publishing facts and figures showing major socio-economic progress on May 23. But self-immolations, protests, arrests and lengthy prison terms passed down on dissidents showed there was little to celebrate, said overseas Tibet groups and rights organizations.
The Panchen Lama Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, Beijing's choice after the boy selected by the Dalai Lama was disappeared 21 years ago, held a head-touching ritual to mark the Buddha's birth in a government-controlled ceremony in Lhasa over the weekend.
The Dalai Lama led a peace march in India to mark the Buddha's birthday and made no statement on the anniversary of Beijing's rule in his homeland as Chinese media also failed to mention the Tibetan spiritual leader.
State news agency Xinhua instead reminded Chinese that Tibet recorded 8 percent economic growth last year, and remained on course to double life expectancy, up to 70 years in 2020 from just 35.5 years in 1951, the same year the People's Liberation Army took over the Tibetan Plateau.
"However, Tibet still faces difficulties, including the daunting task of fighting separatism, which has distracted the regional government," Wang Chunhan, head of the Marxism-Leninism Research Institute of the Tibetan Academy, was quoted as saying by the nationalistic tabloid Global Times.
Aside from Sonam Tso's self-immolation, Chinese authorities have faced a series of Tibetan protests against Beijing's rule in recent weeks. Jampa Gelek, a 23-year-old Tibetan monk was detained by police over a suspected self-immolation attempt on May 16.
Two weeks earlier, another monk was detained after a solo protest holding an image of the Dalai Lama on "Martyrs Street" in Aba, so-called because of a spate of demonstrations.
Tibetans also lay on the road in a much bigger protest, accusing a mining operation of polluting a tributary of the Yangtze River after scores of dead fish were discovered near a lithium mine in Ganzi, Sichuan.
An official notice circulated via social media ordered a halt to mining in the area on May 6, two days after the protest. By then, locals were reportedly fuming after armed soldiers and police were sent in to quell the unrest.
"This is how things are — the nation's military is sent to crack down on us," a protester could be heard saying in a video recording the standoff.
Tibetan monk and writer Jo Lobsang Jamyang, pen name Lomig, was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison "for sharing government secrets and attempting to divide the nation" in a separate case sometime this month. Held in secret, it remains unclear when or where his trial took place — his lawyer and family were denied the right to attend. He had been detained after writing about self-immolations and other forms of protest.
"This news from Tibet in the last few weeks is, sadly, a classic spread of stories that could have come from any time in the last three or four years," Alastair Currie, campaigns manager of Free Tibet based in London, told ucanews.com. "That said, it is true we haven't seen this much activity concentrated into a short period like this for a few months."
Such cases were a symptom of desperate efforts by Tibetans to make their voices heard, said Currie, as Chinese authorities continue to lock down this Himalayan region against all forms of dissent.
Some 479 similar cases were recorded in Tibetan areas between 2013 and 2015 amid a "stability maintenance campaign" by authorities, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on May 22 published on the eve of the anniversary marking 65 years of Chinese rule.
More than 160 street protests and dozens of immolations, among hundreds of other recorded acts of dissent, showed China's campaign to quell dissatisfaction among Tibetans had failed, said Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch's China director.
"The basis of real stability is for China's government to respect rights, understand and respond to local grievances, and roll back abuses by security forces across the plateau," said Richardson.