Self-Immolations in Tibetan Areas of China Making Situation More Delicate

March has long been a tense time for China and its Tibetan areas.  It is a month marked by key anniversaries in the Tibetans' struggle for more freedom.  And this year, a growing number of self-immolations protesting Chinese policies in Tibetan areas is making the situation even more delicate.

Security is tight in parts of China where many of the self-immolations have occurred.  In Sichuan province's Aba prefecture, rows of military trucks line major streets, as do barbed wire fences and scores of baton and shield wielding police.

Fire extinguishers are kept at hand just in case another self-immolation is attempted.

Despite this, the protests continue.  

Since March 16 of last year, at least 27 monks, nuns and ordinary people have set themselves on fire in protest. And more than half of those self-immolations have occurred since January of this year.

On March 10, an 18-year-old Kirti monk set himself on fire behind a military camp in Aba.

March 10 is the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and is also the day region-wide protests against China's rule in the Tibetan areas began in March 2008 prior to the Beijing Olympics.

China blames overseas groups and Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for the growing unrest and tension.  

The head of Aba prefecture, Wu Zegang, says most of those who have self-immolated have criminal records and are social outcasts.  Many of the suicide protests have taken place in Aba.

“There is a great deal of evidence that the Dalai clique and the Tibetan independence forces are planning and supporting acts of self-immolation, inciting more clerics and lay people to engage in copycat incidents," Wu said.  "They destroy lives and use this twisted means to incite separatism through these acts of violence and terrorism.”

China has poured massive funds into raising educational and living standards and building up infrastructure in Tibetan parts of the country.  From its perspective, stability should be the norm.

But critics say the real concern is China's heavy-handed approach to the problem.

“It wouldn’t cost that much for China to give something that would make the majority of Tibetans satisfied and be convinced that there is a future for the Tibetan community within the larger People’s Republic of China,” said Thupten Jinpa, the English translator for the Dalai Lama.

But so far, China has responded by limiting reporting on the incidents and largely keeping the region off-limits to foreign journalists.  In addition to labelling the protestors terrorists and blaming outside forces, it has taken aggressive steps to beef up security in Tibetan areas.

Such an approach, Jinpa said, will only further isolate Tibetans, and fails to recognize the significant shift their struggle has taken, particularly since March of last year.

"Tibetans have crossed an important threshold in their struggle and they are now increasingly individuals who are basically making a statement that I am not afraid to die, if I can make an impact, I am not afraid to die," he said.

Arjia Rinpoche, a senior Tibetan religious figure who held leadership positions in China before fleeing into exile, said there is a difference between the way China handles problems in Tibet and in other parts of the country.

"In mainland China when something happens, the Chinese government will come to the village or place [where incidents have occurred] and reprimand officials," Arjia said. "In Tibet, it is the opposite. They just raise up their positions and that indirectly encourages leaders in Tibetan areas to make their policies more and more tight."

Recently, when residents in southeastern Wukan staged a rebellion and took control of the village, kicking out Communist Party officials, the government responded by giving in to most of their demands over a land and corruption dispute.

While the Chinese government has so far taken a tough stance in response to the self-immolations, they have also been voicing concern and regret for those who have participated in this extreme form of protest.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday at the final press conference of the National People's Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao said that China does not agree with such actions -- which, as he put it, "interfere and damage social harmony."  But he added that "young Tibetans are innocent and we feel deeply pained by such behavior."

But it is not just China that is calling for an end to the self-immolations.

Arjia Rinpoche, along with well-known Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser and poet Gade Tsering, issued a statement earlier this month calling for an end to the fiery protests.

The letter, which was posted on Woeser's blog and titled an "Appeal to Tibetans to Cease Self-Immolation: Cherish Your Life in a Time of Oppression," praised the actions of those who had already sacrificed their lives, saying "such dedication is rare in the world!"

Arjia said the letter appeals to those living in Tibetan parts of China to encourage friends, family members and spiritual leaders to help stop self-immolations now.

He said that while Tibetans have already shown great bravery, they can only change their reality if they stay alive.

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