During the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, a total of eleven Tibetans set themselves on fire, bringing the total thus far to an estimated 74 individuals. The self-immolations are undoubtedly an embarrassment to Chinese leaders, who were hoping to keep the spotlight focused on their once-in-a-decade political transition of power.
Hu Jintao did not directly mention the self-immolations in the work report he delivered upon convening the party congress. He said only that China required “intensive education about ethnic unity and progress” as well as further development in ethnic minority regions. “We should consolidate and develop socialist ethnic relations of equality, unity, mutual assistance, and harmony so that all ethnic groups in China will live and develop together in harmony.”
High-level Tibetan officials attending the party congress continued to blame the unrest on the Dalai Lama and Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, India. Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) Vice-Governor Lobsang Gyaltsen, who is tasked with ensuring stability, argued that “everyone can see that these incidents are being manipulated by external Tibetan forces. They are calling the self-immolations heroic acts and making the self-immolators out to be heroes.” He added that “the external Tibetan forces and the Dalai clique are sacrificing other people’s lives to attain their secret political motives.” The Vice-Governor emphasized that while the government safeguards religious freedom, monks are required to participate in political and patriotic education sessions. Critics maintain that during these sessions, monks and nuns are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and pledge loyalty to the Chinese state.
The CTA has repeatedly advised the Tibetan people to refrain from taking “drastic actions” such as self-immolation in protest of Chinese policies. However, Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay recently sent mixed messages by declaring that while he strongly discourages people from taking their own lives, “once a protest takes place, it becomes our sacred duty to support it.” Exile leaders feel great sympathy for those prepared to sacrifice themselves to draw international attention to the plight of the Tibetan people. At the same time, they must also avoid giving the impression that they are actively encouraging Tibetan suicides, which the Chinese government could use as a pretext for even further crackdowns.
In addition to the religious restrictions placed upon the monastic community, Tibetan students have grown increasingly concerned over the erosion of bilingual language policies in the region. Thousands of students in Rebkong, Amdo (Qinghai) protested in both October 2010 and March 2012 when authorities proposed changing the language of classroom instruction from Tibetan to Chinese. Another large protest took place on November 9th, when as many as 5,000 secondary school and university students chanted slogans demanding ethnic equality and language freedom. They also called for the Dalai Lama to return from exile. In a neighboring township, 700 young students gathered the previous day to replace the Chinese flags atop their school with the Tibetan independence flag. Furthermore, nearly 1,000 Tibetan college students at the Qinghai Nationalities University held a candlelight vigil on November 9th for those who self-immolated.
Meanwhile, Voice of Tibet reported on November 13th that a group of Tibetan college students and teachers submitted an eight-point petition to high-level Chinese authorities. Among other demands, they called on the government to create an atmosphere free of oppression by protecting and promoting the Tibetan language, expanding the study of Tibet beyond the language itself at the tertiary level, curbing Chinese migration to Tibet, respecting Tibetan Buddhism, and ceasing the practice of “trampling upon Tibetan traditional culture and customs.”
Although observers have witnessed paramilitary forces flooding into Rebkong during the past week, it appears that they largely refrained from directly interfering with the protests. Aside from the glaring exception of the final days of the Tian’anmen student movement, both the Chinese Republican and Communist governments have proven far less likely to use force against student protesters than other groups of demonstrators.
As China scholar Jeffrey Wasserstrom argues in his book, Student Protests in Twentieth-Century China: The View from Shanghai, students see themselves as an elite social group that possessed the “right and duty to speak out on political issues because in due course the next generation of high officials would come from their ranks.” Their worldview is also shaped by the historical value that Chinese have traditionally placed on education and by the belief that scholarship comprises the most righteous and legitimate road to power and influence in China.
Wasserstrom asserts that other members of Chinese society have tended to support and reinforce this elite and privileged role by showing respect and lending succor to student movements. Chinese students have consequently often received a modicum of protection from the government. They have also found it possible to “frame their protest as routine assertions of the political rights and social duties traditionally accorded their class, rather than as attempts to secure a new corporate identity within society or a new role in politics.” However, if ethnic minority students continue to protest in large numbers in a politically sensitive region, it is unclear how the government will ultimately react.
The Chinese government continues to completely reject outside criticism of its policies in Tibet. Che Dalha, the Communist Party secretary in Lhasa, told reporters attending the party congress that his city was the happiest in China. Quoting song lyrics, he stated that “the sky is the bluest, the clouds are the whitest, the water is the cleanest and the people are the happiest.” For good measure, he mentioned, “there are [also] harmonious ethnic relations.”
On November 2, United Nations High Commission for Human Rights Navi Pillay expressed her grave concerns over the frequency and scope of unrest in ethnographic Tibet. She also raised reports of detentions, disappearances, and torture; police brutality against unarmed protesters; and restrictions on cultural, political, and religious rights. She called upon the Chinese government to grant the media access to the region as well as permit human rights monitors to appraise the current situation there.
However, Vice-Governor Lobsang Gyaltsen quickly denied her request. “We welcome everybody to Tibet, but if people investigate issues like human rights, we don’t think that is appropriate.”
Two More Burn in Rebgong
Tibetan self-immolation protests continue as China announces a change in national leaders.
Two young Tibetans set themselves ablaze in protests against Chinese rule and died on Thursday in a restive Tibetan county where authorities have cut communications to prevent news of self-immolations from marring announcements of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s leadership change, sources said.
The burnings in Rebgong (in Chinese, Tongren) county in Qinghai province’s Malho (Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture bring to 74 the total number of self-immolations challenging Chinese rule in Tibetan areas since the wave of fiery protests began in February 2009.
“Today, two persons self-immolated in Rebgong, including a woman in Tsenmo,” a local resident told RFA’s Tibetan service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Tibetan media sources identified the woman as Tenzin Dolma, aged 23 and a resident of Tsenmo Goge village in Rebgong, the county in which most of the recent self-immolations have taken place.
She set herself on fire at about noon local time in the courtyard of a community temple, sources said.
“She died at the scene, since local Tibetans didn’t know immediately about her protest. She left behind her cell phone and rings, and then prepared herself inside the prayer hall by performing certain religious rituals,” one source said.
Tenzin Dolma is survived by her father Bhulo, 50, and her mother Tashi Dolma, 41.
Her remains will be cremated at around 10:00 p.m. by local Tibetans led by monks from nearby Rongwo monastery, sources said.
Man also dies
Separately, a young man named Khambum Gyal set himself on fire and died near the Rongwo monastery in Rebgong’s Dowa township, sources said.
Gyal, a native of Gyalpo Luchu in Rebgong, was identified by Chinese state media as a 14-year-old boy, though Tibetan sources place his age at 18 or 19.
“At around 11:00 a.m. today, 18-year-old Khambum Gyal self-immolated in the street at Rongwo and died,” a Tibetan living in Switzerland named Sonam said, citing contacts in the region.
“Hundreds of local people, including monks from Tsagya monastery, cremated his remains.”
Khambum Gyal is survived by his father, Tamdin Gyal, and his mother Dolkar Tso, and by six siblings, sources said.
Some Tibetan groups believe that recent Tibetan self-immolation protests have been timed to coincide with the Chinese Communist Party’s 18th Party Congress in Beijing, and to send a powerful message of Tibetan discontent with Chinese policies to the new leadership.
China’s political elite named former vice president Xi Jinping to the top Party post on Thursday, and surprisingly also put him in charge of China’s military after the week-long Party meeting.
In a statement on Thursday, London-based Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said that Chinese authorities have blocked detailed news of protests in the Rebgong area.
“It may seem particularly important for China to banish any hint of instability during announcements of the new generation of leaders, hence the stringent efforts to block communications to and from Rebgong,” Brigden said.
“World leaders must speak out for the Tibetans who are protesting for freedom in the face of all China’s might.”
The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), as the Tibetan exile government in India is called, has urged the United States to push the new Chinese leadership to restore various rights to the Tibetans.
“The Obama administration also could take up the issue of Tibet more seriously with the new Chinese leadership appointed at the 18th Party Congress,” said CTA head Lobsang Sangay in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.
“Tibetans in Tibet are crying out for justice, including the autonomy and freedom to worship they have been promised by Beijing over the years,” Sangay said.
“Helping resolve the issue of Tibet is not only in synch with American values, but it is also a strategic imperative. America and the rest of the world have a vital stake in China’s rise from an economic giant to a potential superpower,” he said.