Two Tibetans set themselves on fire in the north-western Chinese province of Qinghai on Wednesday according to state media reports, with the death of a herder in a remote county suggesting that the self-immolation protests in Tibetan areas — at least 40 over the past year — are spreading beyond monastery towns.
A video released by overseas groups showed two young Tibetans engulfed in flames before collapsing in what appeared to be a parking lot in front of a store selling construction material. Shocked passersby looked on as the men waved small flags — symbols of the Tibetan independence movement which are banned in China.
The official Xinhua news agency reported on Thursday that Tenzin Khedup, a 24-year-old herder, died after the protest in the township of Kardo in Yushu, a Tibetan prefecture in Qinghai. The protest took place at 3.30 p.m. on Wednesday afternoon.
Authorities were still trying to identify the second protester, reported to be a carpenter from a Tibetan area of neighbouring Sichuan province. Xinhua reported that he was unconscious. Overseas groups named him as Ngawang Norphel (22), adding that he was taken to a hospital with serious burns.
Exiled groups said the two had left a note saying they “decided to self-immolate with the hope that His Holiness the Dalai Lama may live long and return to Tibet as soon as possible”. “For the cause of Tibetans, we chose to die for these reasons,” the note said, according to the groups.
Wednesday’s protests marked the 39th and 40th self-immolations reported in the past year, of which at least 30 people have died. Seven self-immolations have been reported from Qinghai, with five deaths.
Twenty-five of the protests took place in Tibetan areas of Sichuan province, mainly in the Aba Tibetan prefecture from where one of Wednesday’s protesters came. Most of the self-immolations were carried out by Tibetan monks; six nuns were also among the protesters.
Many of the protests in Sichuan took place at the influential Kirti monastery in Aba. While Chinese officials have blamed exiled Kirti monks in India for stirring the unrest, monks in other monasteries say tightening security restrictions in Aba are triggering the protests.
Aba is one of several Tibetan areas where authorities have boosted security deployments and barred visits from tourists and journalists over the past year. According to Aba residents now living in Beijing, recent months have seen an unprecedented security clampdown, with the setting up of dozens of checkpoints manned by police and paramilitary forces, a shutdown of the Internet and restrictions on mobile phone communication.
As of 2009, public security spending in Aba was six times the average expenditure in non-Tibetan prefectures in Sichuan. Local officials view the protests as separatist acts and “terrorism” and have vowed to clamp down on any unrest and step up security.
The Communist Party chief of the Aba Tibetan prefecture, Wu Zegang, earlier this year accused the Dalai Lama of “supporting and inspiring” the self-immolations. “By touting self-immolaters as heroes and performing religious rituals to expiate the sins of the dead, they support and inspire self-immolations,” he said. “They instigate people to emulate this behaviour and are not hesitant to use terrorism to reach their objectives.”
The Dalai Lama has denied encouraging the protests. He has blamed Chinese policies for triggering the incidents, and expressed sympathy with the monks. He has, however, stopped short of calling for the protests to end; he declined to respond to a question last month when asked if he thought the incidents should stop.
In recent months, the protests, initially restricted to the monks and nuns of monastery towns, have spread to other Tibetan areas and involved ordinary Tibetans, as in Wednesday’s protest by a herder. A farmer set himself on fire in the town of Tongren, also in Qinghai, earlier this year, while a young Tibetan student, Tsering Kyi, died in Gansu province in March.
The spreading protests have garnered wide sympathy among many Tibetans in China, but also raised concerns among both monks and ordinary Tibetans that the acts would bring increased restrictions of the kind that were imposed following riots in 2008, such as added security in monasteries and travel bans, that were subsequently withdrawn.
Others have argued that the immolations might also be counterproductive to taking forward Tibetan concerns. Tibetan poets Woeser and Gade Tsering, both of whom live in China, in an appeal called on monks and Tibetan intellectuals to help stop the immolations.
“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 appeal said. “Staying alive allows us to gather the strength as drops of water to form a great ocean.”