China seeks to halt Tibetan self-immolations

Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala, India, hold a vigil on Oct. 22, the day a Tibetan named Dhondup died after setting himself ablaze in China's Gansu province.
(Ashwini Bhatia / Associated Press)

BEIJING — In the last three months, two of Thinlay Gyatso’s relatives have set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule, and the 31-year-old Tibetan academic is still sorting out his conflicted emotions over their suicides.

If any of them had confided their plans, he said, he would have tried to stop them.

“From the beginning, I said this was not a good thing to burn yourself,” he said. On the other hand, he acknowledged a swell of pride in his relatives — one of them a 26-year-old mother of two young children who was his second cousin, the other an uncle who was in his 50s.

“People respect the ones who have immolated themselves. They collect their photographs on their cellphones,” said Thinlay. “It shows your bravery and your commitment to your nationality.”


Chinese authorities have tried power, persuasion, propaganda — and money — in an unsuccessful attempt to extinguish the flames that are threatening to engulf Tibetan stretches of western China.

In a one-week period last month, seven Tibetans killed themselves in as many days in anger over Chinese repression, bringing the total number of self-immolations to about 60 since March 2011. On Sunday, a 25-year-old man reported to be an artist with two children set himself on fire in the monastery town of Tongren, in the western province of Qinghai.

The Chinese government is increasingly frantic in advance of this week’s Communist Party congress, which it hoped would showcase the stability of its rule.

The authorities have blanketed the streets of Tibetan neighborhoods in the country with armed police wielding riot gear and fire extinguishers, erecting barricades and checkpoints. Tibetans who have spread news of the immolations through email and Skype have been arrested as well, sources say.

In the town where Thinlay’s uncle set himself on fire, the Public Security Bureau recently tacked up notices offering rewards of up to $8,000 for “information on the scheming, planning and instigation of such acts.”

“Self-immolations have seriously affected social harmony and the working order of people’s daily lives,” read a notice dated Oct. 21.


Robbie Barnett, a Tibet scholar at Columbia University, said that in some areas, Chinese authorities have also offered to give money to the families of the dead if they’ll claim that the self-immolation was not for political purposes.

“The government is trying to give them money to say it was a suicide because of depression, problems with school or marriage,” Barnett said. Tibetans, he said, are responding by raising money themselves to give the families.

In an effort to instill Chinese values in the restive Tibetan regions, authorities have stepped up what they call “patriotic education” in schools and monasteries, forcing residents to study communist theory. The efforts have instead further angered Tibetans.

A wave of self-immolations occurred last autumn around Aba, on the southern edge of the Tibetan plateau, about 220 miles northwest of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province. Most of the self-immolators were monks protesting religious restrictions on the Kirti monastery there.

Over the summer, the Chinese government removed barricades from around Aba in an attempt to relieve the pressure on local Tibetans. The pace of immolations in Aba slowed. But it picked up to the north in Gansu province and spread among the lay population.

Thinlay’s cousin Dolkar Tso killed herself Aug. 7 outside the Gaden Choeling monastery in Gansu province’s Gannan prefecture, which lies on the easternmost edge of the Tibetan plateau. Photographs of her blackened body circulated widely on exile websites, which said that she had shouted for the return of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, before lighting the flames.

“It was very, very shocking to her children and husband,” said Thinlay, who works in India but was visiting his family at home around the time. He said she had a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

On Oct. 13, Thinlay’s 54-year-old uncle, Tamdin Dorje, immolated himself on the same spot outside the monastery. The uncle, a farmer who grew barley and raised cows and yaks, was a prominent religious figure in town because his grandson had been deemed a reincarnated lama.

Many of those who have set themselves on fire recently have been retirees. The oldest, Dhondup, was in his mid-60s. He killed himself Oct. 22 outside the large Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, in Gansu province.

Dhondup had been counseling younger Tibetans against killing themselves.

“He thought the younger generation should not sacrifice themselves, that the older people should take this role,” said Lhachab Jinpa, a researcher living in Dharamsala, India, home to the Tibetan government in exile.

Labrang, one of the largest monasteries in China, has been the site of a cluster of self-immolations in recent weeks. Tibetans blame Chinese intrusion into the monasteries, where monks undergo patriotic education, in which they are lectured about the Communist Party and told to renounce the Dalai Lama.

“The Chinese don’t understand our religion. They don’t believe in it and they create a suffocating atmosphere,” said a former Labrang monk who gave his name as Tashi, who fled in 2008 but remains in touch with his friends at the monastery. “The situation is getting worse and worse. They’ve turned Xiahe into an armed camp.”

In 2008, an uprising began in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital, and quickly spread into Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Despite being outside the Tibet Autonomous Region, the three provinces are home to large Tibetan populations. Before the uprising, Tibetans outside the autonomous region were more or less left alone and were more accepting of Chinese rule than their cousins in Lhasa.

Although the Tibetan parliament in exile recently called for an end to self-immolations, Beijing has pressed without success for a stronger statement from the Dalai Lama.

“Tibetans in exile struggle to come up with an answer as to how to respond to these protests,” said Dibyesh Anand, a Tibetan scholar at London’s University of Westminster. “They tread a thin line since glorifying it as a sacrifice would open them to accusations that they are encouraging it. Criticizing it would be a sad attack on those sacrificing.”