Two Tibetans set themselves on fire near an important Tibetan Buddhist monastery at the heart of Lhasa on Sunday, in the first self-immolation protests reported in the capital city of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
Tobgye Tseten, a monk from Xiahe, a Tibetan county in southwestern Gansu province, died after he burned himself in front of many worshippers who had gathered at the Jokhang Temple to mark Saka Dawa, an auspicious month for Buddhists, State media reported on Monday.
Dargye, another monk from Aba county in southwestern Sichuan, where more than half of the self-immolation protests reported in the past year have taken place, survived after his self-immolation attempt and was taken to a hospital. He is in a stable condition. There were more than 30 self-immolation protests last year.
The two Tibetans attempted the immolations at 2.16 p.m. on Sunday afternoon on Pargor Street in a busy Lhasa area near the Jokhang temple, according to a statement from the publicity department of the Communist Party of China’s Tibet regional committee. The statement, reported by the official Xinhua news agency, said police on patrol put out the flames in two minutes and took the men to a hospital.
The Chinese government has boosted deployment of police personnel in Lhasa in recent months in the wake of a string of self-immolations reported in Tibetan areas of neighbouring Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan provinces.
Residents of Lhasa told The Hindu in recent interviews that security measures put in place in February and March, ahead of the Tibetan new year and the anniversary of the March 14, 2008 riots, were “unprecedented”, with a ring of checkpoints operating around the city and turning away many Tibetans who did not hold Lhasa residence permits.
Part of the reason for the security arrangements was to prevent the spread of self-immolation protests into TAR, with more than 30 incidents reported over the past year in Tibetan areas in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai.
Before Sunday’s incidents, only one self-immolation had been reported to have taken place in the TAR, in Qamdo county last year. Chinese officials have often pointed out that the immolations had largely been restricted to a few monasteries in Tibetan areas in Sichuan and Qinghai, where they blamed the influence of exiled monks – a reflection, they argued, of stability within TAR.
The spread of the protest to Lhasa, the most important religious centre for Tibetans and the administrative and political capital of the TAR, brought condemnations from Chinese officials who labelled the acts as “separatist attempts”.
“They were a continuation of the self-immolations in other Tibetan areas and these acts were all aimed at separating Tibet from China,” Hao Peng, secretary of the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the CPC Tibet Committee, was quoted as saying by Xinhua.
Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of TAR, alleged that the protests had been carefully planned. Most of the protests had been carried out by lamas, nuns or former members of the clergy, Xinhua quoted him as saying, adding that “investigators found in many cases photos of the designated self-immolators had been sent in advance to separatist forces abroad”.
Xinhua reported that the Lhasa public security bureau, or police authority, had set up a special task force to investigate the cases.
Chinese officials have blamed the exiled religious leader the Dalai Lama of being behind the incidents. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Weimin said on Monday that the incidents were “driven by political motives and are doomed to fail.” “The situation in Tibet is stable, and economic and social development of Tibet have been making continuous progress,” he said. “People of all ethnic groups cherish stability in Tibet. Some people, especially some overseas people, have been trying to sabotage such stability, and I believe this is unpopular with all the people in Tibet.”
Many of the monks who died in the protests were calling for the return of the Dalai Lama and for greater religious freedom, according to videos of some of the self-immolations.
In recent months, the self-immolations have begun to spread beyond the walls of Tibetan monasteries. In Xiahe in Gansu, from where Tobgye Tseten - the monk who died on Sunday - was from, a Tibetan student Tsering Kyi died after setting herself on fire, while Sonam Dargye, a farmer, burned himself in Tongren, Qinghai in March.
The Dalai Lama has stressed that he did not encourage the incidents, blaming repressive policies for triggering the self-immolations. He has expressed sympathy with the monks and nuns, and chose not to answer a question last week when asked if he thought Tibetans should stop setting themselves on fire.