News / Asia

Possible Escalation in China's Crackdown Against Autonomous Tibet

Tibetan Buddhists and tourists view a huge Thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting displaying the Buddha portrait, during the Shoton Festival at Zhaibung Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, August 17, 2012.Tibetan Buddhists and tourists view a huge Thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting displaying the Buddha portrait, during the Shoton Festival at Zhaibung Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, August 17, 2012.
x
Tibetan Buddhists and tourists view a huge Thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting displaying the Buddha portrait, during the Shoton Festival at Zhaibung Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, August 17, 2012.
Tibetan Buddhists and tourists view a huge Thangka, a religious silk embroidery or painting displaying the Buddha portrait, during the Shoton Festival at Zhaibung Monastery in Lhasa, capital of southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, August 17, 2012.
A Tibetan man who disappeared under mysterious circumstances is presumed dead, and activists are accusing Chinese security forces of orchestrating his murder.

The man, 57-year-old Dorjee Rabten, had been prepared to set himself on fire to protest Chinese rule, and had traveled to the city of Siling.

"On August 23, Chinese security personnel murdered Dorjee Rabten in Siling's 'Pachen' guest house," Gyaltsen Choedak, an exiled Tibetan with close contacts in the region, told VOA's Tibetan service.

Choedak and other sources, who asked to remain anonymous, accuse Chinese security forces of killing Rabten to prevent him from immolating himself and potentially using his death to bring attention to what he and others view as unjust Chinese rule in Tibet.

Word of Rabten's death was slow to get out. Choedak said it was not until Rabten's family was unable to reach him and went to Siling to look for him that they finally began to get some information.

"The Chinese security official called Dorjee Rabten’s elder son, Drukjham Gyal, and told him that he should come at once to pick up the body," Choedak said. "He was also warned that he could not bring any other member of his family."

But Choedak said the son never got the body or an explanation of how his father died. Instead, he was given what he was told was his father’s ashes and a warning that the family would face severe consequences if they shared anything about the death with outsiders.

VOA made numerous phone calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Chinese Consulate General in New York, but was unable to reach any officials for comment.

Change in tactics?

If the accusation is true, it would represent a significant escalation in China's ongoing crackdown against Tibetans pushing for more autonomy.  

"The Chinese response on the ground seems to be a great show of force, an attempt to exert control, but in the main it has not been a violent response," said Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet.

Markey said it would be surprising for China to resort to more heavy-handed tactics now, with a once-in-a-decade change in leadership looming.

"With all the tremendous concerns that this transition go smoothly, I don't think the Chinese are looking for any extreme responses inside Tibet," she said.

Still, over the past several weeks and months, Chinese security forces have become more active, going after anyone involved in self-immolations. Earlier this month, Chinese police in Nagchu town arrested about 30 people, including the uncle, sister and brother in-law of a 43-year-old man who set himself on fire in protest.

Several monks also have been detained for taking pictures of a self-immolation.  

Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson said the crackdown has become increasingly intrusive.

"[China is] placing more officials in monasteries, arresting monks, denying people access to the bodies of loved ones who've immolated," she said. "It really is sort of adding insult to injury."

Just the threat of more immolations appears to be having an impact.

"It's now fairly easy to photograph different parts of the security forces in downtown Lhasa, for example, walking around not just heavily armed with weapons, but carrying fire extinguishers as preparations to put out these immolations should they happen spontaneously," Richardson said.

Desperation

The trend is clear. Since February of 2009, at least 57 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policy in Tibet. The Tibetan government-in-exile says 47 of those cases have resulted in deaths.  

At first, many of those setting themselves on fire were monks. That is no longer the case.

"We're seeing lay people - mothers, fathers, grandfathers - self-immolating," Markey said. "So, if there's any trend it is a broadening of the self-immolations, both in whose doing them and where they're taking place."

Richardson, with Human Rights Watch, sees a direct connection with China's refusal to change course in its Tibet policy.

"It's very hard to see those as anything other than an expression of desperation that some Tibetans feel about the restrictions they're living under," she said.

China has denounced self-immolators as terrorists, and according to Human Rights Watch, has embarked on a campaign to prevent images of self-immolations from spreading across China or even making it to the rest of the world.

But despite such efforts, there are no other known cases in which Chinese officials stopped a self-immolation by killing the would-be protester.

Preventing immolations

In fact, before would-be self-immolator Dorjee Rabten died under mysterious circumstances, Chinese security officials already had stopped him once from setting himself on fire.

Tibetan exile Choedak said his sources told him Rabten first came to the attention of Chinese security officials August 17, when he traveled to a town in eastern Tibet.

"He sent a Chinese Muslim to buy kerosene, but this Chinese Muslim must have informed the security people," Choedak said. "Rabten was arrested on that day."

But Choedak said instead of taking Rabten into custody, Chinese security returned him to his family with a warning. But Choedak said Rabten also was put under surveillance, with Chinese security operatives following him to Siling.

Rabten told family members he was making the trip to see a doctor. But Choedak said Rabten's family now believes the visit was likely a cover, and that his goal was self-immolation.  

Choedak also said Rabten's family and many others in their community are convinced Rabten never got the chance to set himself on fire in one final act of defiance.

Global response

Groups like the International Campaign for Tibet and Human Rights Watch believe the grisly images of Tibetan protesters on fire are keeping Tibet in the spotlight.

Last week, the U.S. State Department confirmed its ambassador to China, Gary Locke, visited Aba Prefecture of Sichuan Province, a predominantly Tibetan region. But the confirmation came only after a photo of the visit appeared on Twitter and in The New York Times.  

HRW's Richardson said the photo - taken by a member of Locke's staff - cannot be overlooked.

"There is a very evocative photograph of him [U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke] shaking hands with a monk," she said. "I think that's actually a more powerful statement than the standard line being repeated by State."

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the visit to Aba and surrounding villages was part of a larger trip to Chongqing and Sichuan provinces in September. She also reiterated Washington's "grave concern" about the rising number of immolations, urging "better dialogue" between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives.

However, just the visit itself could be significant.

Locke visited two monasteries in Songpan, an area roughly 160 kilometers east of the town of Aba, which is called Ngaba by Tibetans and which has seen 26 of the self-immolations since 2009.

Still, observers say it is unlikely there will be any movement from the Chinese on Tibet until after the country's new leadership, set to be chosen next month, is firmly in place. In the meantime, they say it is likely more Tibetans will choose to set themselves on fire.

Jeff Seldin

Jeff works out of VOA’s Washington headquarters and is national security correspondent. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jseldin or on Google Plus.

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: gritty from: Australia
October 23, 2012 7:44 AM
China illegally invaded and occupied Tibet and has been oppressing its people.
China is an autocratic nation and violating human rights.
There is no democracy or freedom of speech in China.
China is an evil nation and sick man of Asia.
China should stop its aggression on neighbors

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs