“As China’s Communist Party prepares for its leadership transition, a wave of self-immolations has spread and accelerated across Tibet, in the most sustained protests against Beijing’s rule there in five decades,” Simon Denyer writes in the Washington Post:
Most of those who have set themselves afire are in their late teens or early 20s, activists said. Exiled Tibetan political leaders and scholars described the actions as an emphatic rejection of the economic development and material gains that China is offering the Tibetan people and an anguished call for independence and the return of the region’s religious leader, the Dalai Lama.
“Almost all of them were born after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution,” Lobsang Sangay, the leader of the India-based government-in-exile, said of the protesters. “They have grown up in the Chinese system, received Chinese education. They are the primary beneficiaries of whatever the Chinese government gave them. They are saying, ‘This is not what we want.’?”
Sangay has previously warned that “something very drastic and unforeseen and tragic” could result from Beijing’s security build-up in the region.
Chinese police recently posted notices in Kanlho prefecture offering several thousand dollars’ reward for anyone who tipped off the authorities about the “black hands” supposedly orchestrating the self-immolations, Radio Free Asia reports.
“The language used in the notice is consistent with the absence of official acknowledgement of policies or practices that have assuredly contributed to the … self-immolations in Tibet since February 2009,” said Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet.
The self-immolations continue despite the opposition of Tibetan exile groups and the advice of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader.
“Local authorities are under pressure from the central government to put an end to this,” said Elliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University. “But this is a form of protest that doesn’t need a conspiracy, it just needs a person. These fliers seem to me to be somewhat desperate.”
But analysts believe the protests have assumed a momentum of their own, independently of the exiled leadership.
“This is a very serious development, suggesting that Tibetans believe that this rising number of self-immolations will make a substantive difference to their political situation, and it could lead to more people burning themselves,” Robert Barnett, a scholar of Tibet at Columbia University, told RFA.
The immolations demonstrate the chasm between the Communist authorities’ insistence on uniformity and minority groups’ yearning for cultural identity and autonomy, observers suggest.
“Some Tibetans, Uighurs and Mongolians believe that Beijing is less intent on helping them and more focused on erasing their culture and aspirations for autonomy or even independence. writes Time magazine’s Hannah Beech:
As the self-immolations racked up last week, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, reserved most of its Tibet coverage for cheerful stories on government buildings being rebuilt in an earthquake-hit part of the high plateau and four young Tibetans who received donated cornea transplants. On Oct. 26, the official Chinese newswire, Xinhua, ran a story on the world’s highest-altitude national park opening in southwestern Tibet. “The parks are part of Tibetan efforts to turn the region into ‘an important world destination,’ which is also a target of central government,” said the article. One Tibet is on fire. Another aims to become “an important world destination.” The gulf between the Tibetans and the Chinese government begins right there.
“Tibetans are responding to China’s repressive policies, to seeing their neighbors, friends and families attacked, harassed, beaten and jailed,” said Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute. “The self-immolations are a response to escalating repression, which the Chinese meet with more repression, and we are in this vicious cycle.”
The International Campaign for Tibet and many other Tibetan civil society groups are supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.