News / Asia

Self-Immolations in China's Tibetan Areas Mark Shift in Tibet Movement

Since last March, at least 16 Tibetans, mostly monks and nuns, have set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese government policies.

Although initially these self-immolations were largely isolated to a Tibetan area in southwestern China, they have spread and grown in number. Between March and the end of September last year, four Tibetans set themselves on fire in protest. From October until the end of last month, another 12 followed in their footsteps.  Four occurred in January alone.

Very few of these self destructive acts have been caught on camera, but one self-immolation that has made it to the outside world was that of Palden Choetso, a nun from a Tibetan area in southwestern China’s Sichuan province.  In the video, she stands as the flames engulf her body and she later falls to the ground.

Palden Choetso set herself on fire in November and was the 11th Tibetan to resort to this extreme form of protest.

Still image of Tibetan Palden Choetso's self-immolatation.
Still image of Tibetan Palden Choetso's self-immolatation.
In the wake of her death, nuns rallied to mark her sacrifice.  And between their cries of despair came calls for Tibetan independence from China.  A candlelight vigil was held and Tibetans formed long lines to pay their respects.

Robbie Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University in New York, says that as the number of self-immolations grows and spreads to more areas, Tibetan patience in China appears to be running out.

"There is more nationalism in these Tibetan areas than there was probably at any time in history.  And this has come probably as a result of bad Chinese policies that have gotten more tough and more aggressive in the last 15 years especially."

The wave of self-immolations during the past year began in March, when a 20-year-old monk Phuntsong set himself on fire to mark the third anniversary of a bloody Chinese crackdown on protests at the Kirti monastery in Aba.  

But Phuntsong's self-immolation was not the first.  The precedent for this form of protest was set in February 2009, when a monk from the same monastery set himself on fire.

The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet says that monk, named Tapey, self-immolated after local authorities banned monks at the monastery from observing a traditional prayer festival during the Tibetan New Year. During the past year, six of the first eight self-immolations were carried out by Kirti monks, but gradually the incidents have spread.

Exiled Tibetans in Dharmsala, India, carry portraits of Palden Choetso, a 35-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nun who set herself ablaze in 2011.  (AP)

Steve Marshall, a senior advisor for the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, has spent more than two decades researching human rights violations in Tibet.

"What we’re having as these immolations move out, we are having precedents set in more and more counties," Marshall said. "We're seeing precedents established for self-immolation and this is something Tibetans are going to remember for a long, long time."

China has tightened security in Tibetan areas where the immolations have occurred and branded those who burn themselves to death as terrorists.

Beijing also has accused Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of supporting the acts, an accusation the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile deny.

The head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, says his administration does not encourage any form of protest in China because of the consequences of such actions.

"If you protest in Tibet, more often than not you get arrested or beaten up, sometimes tortured.  Sometimes you disappear; sometimes you die."

Acts such as self-immolation, Lobsang and analysts say, show how desperate Tibetans in China have become.

In Aba and other Tibetan areas, an increase in religious regulations in recent years has put more pressure on monks and nuns, micromanaging their lives and limiting their freedom of movement, says Steve Marshall of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

"These get down to a level of detail [such as] what kind of a ringtone should you have on your phone, what TV programs can you see, can you have a picture of the Dalai Lama.  Very, very petty details about daily life for monks and nuns.  More importantly, they control things like can you go anywhere else to hear religious teaching. And if you do go somewhere else, you will have to have permission."

Columbia University's Robbie Barnett says self-immolations also mark a departure from the past, when the situation in Tibet was largely protested by exiles and the Dalai Lama.

"The immolations are marking a very important change, where what is going to happen for the future in Tibet is going to be decided by the decisions of the people inside Tibet," Barnett said. "And these immolations are a very visible, very tragic kind of decision, but they are a political statement."

It is unlikely, analysts say, that protests against Chinese policies in Tibetan areas and self-immolations will end any time soon, especially when the Beijing government's response so far has been to increase security and the repression of human rights.

You May Like

Syrian Rebels Poised for Anti-Russia Collaboration

Forty-one insurgent groups issue joint statement vowing retaliation for Russian air offensives More

Political Maneuver Revives Export-Import Bank's Chances

Parliamentary tactic gets bill out of committee, but it faces opposition in the Senate More

Beijing Warns US on S. China Sea Patrols

Warning follows news reports Thursday that US military is planning to sail warships close to artificial islands Beijing has been aggressively building More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdrawsi
Jim Malone
October 09, 2015 12:32 AM
The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video House Republicans in Chaos as Speaker Favorite Withdraws

The Republican widely expected to become the next speaker of the House of Representatives shocked his colleagues Thursday by announcing he was withdrawing his candidacy. The decision by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy means the race to succeed retiring Speaker John Boehner is now wide open. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Video German, US Officials Investigate Volkswagen

German officials have taken steps to restore some of the reputation their car industry has lost after a recent Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. Authorities have searched Volkswagen headquarters and other locations in an effort to identify the culprits in the creation of software that helps cheat on emission tests. Meanwhile, a group of lawmakers in Washington held a hearing to get to the bottom of the cheating strategy that was first discovered in the United States. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Why Are Gun Laws So Hard for Congress to Tackle?

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has spoken out or issued statements about 15 mass shootings. The most recent shooting, in which 10 people were killed at a community college, sparked outrage over the nation's gun laws. But changing those laws isn't as easy as many think. VOA's Carolyn Presutti reports.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

VOA Blogs