Self-immolations on the rise among Tibetans

Ho Ai Li, Asia News Network (The Straits Times): Once unheard of among Tibetans, the number of self-immolation cases in Tibetan areas has reportedly climbed to nearly 50 since 2009, with Beijing and Tibet activists clashing over what has caused these suicides.

Last week, Tibetan monk Lungtok, 21, and his friend Tashi, 20, from the troubled Ngaba county in Sichuan province, became the latest to torch themselves to protest against Chinese repression, said activist groups Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet.

Most of the fiery attempts involve monks or former monks from the Kirti Monastery in Ngaba county but have also spread across the Tibetan plateau, to places including Lhasa, capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Those who resort to self-immolations range from monks to lay men, nuns to mothers, young to old. These cases picked up pace from a year ago, with four on average each month.

Beijing has accused the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and his supporters of instigating the suicides.

Beijing-based Tibetan studies scholar Lian Xiangming argued that the 76-year-old and his followers had encouraged the acts by publicizing them and framing them as acts of sacrifice instead of condemning them outright.

"Shouldn't they take a certain responsibility for these self-immolations?" he told foreign reporters at a talk in March.

Other China-based scholars say the cases might be sparked by economic grievances like the loss of land, which is not uncommon in China. Chinese farmers elsewhere have also been known to burn themselves to protest against land grabs for instance, they note.

But foreign observers believe these suicides reflect intense resentment on the ground against the
Chinese repression of Tibetan culture and religion.

Among other things, monks and nuns are not allowed to worship freely but have to hang up portraits of political leaders like Chinese President Hu Jintao, note Tibetan exile groups.

Professor Michael Davis, a human rights expert at the University of Hong Kong, said the resort to self-immolation shows the lack of channels for Tibetans to voice their unhappiness.

"Such extreme forms of protest come about because the Chinese government has been very thorough in cutting off other forms of protests, even moderate self-expression," he said, adding: "There doesn't seem to be a way out of this until the Chinese government changes its policy."

The leader of Tibet's government in exile Lobsang Sangay argued in a commentary in The Washington Post last month that were the Chinese government to offer to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully through dialogue, the self-immolations would end immediately.

On the other hand, Beijing says that the onus is on the Dalai Lama and his supporters to come out to condemn the suicides.

In any case, with the two sides clashing over the cause of these self-burnings and talks between Beijing and the Dalai Lama at an impasse, scholars say it is very hard to say if an end to these suicides is likely any time soon.

"I can't judge. I just hope these will end as soon as possible," said analyst Tanzen Lhundup of the Beijing-based China Tibetology Research Centre.

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