Introspecting on the self-immolations by Tibetans

I wrote the following for the ICT blog some days back in my attempt to put the developments in Ngapa in context. I hope this serves as a food for thought to some of the readers.


Introspecting on the self-immolations by Tibetans
Bhuchung K Tsering
October 18, 2011

I have been trying to find possible reasons for the ongoing tragic developments in the eastern Tibetan region of Ngapa where now nine Tibetans have indulged in self-immolation, some with fatal consequences. Therefore, I tried looking up reports from Ngapa for the past year or so to see if there was a clue there.

The immediate cause seems to be Chinese response to the pan-Tibetan demonstrations in 2008. “On March 16, 2008, at least 10 Tibetans – including a 16-year-old schoolgirl, Lhundup Tso – were shot dead when police opened fire on unarmed Tibetans who had joined a spontaneous protest following a morning prayer session at Kirti monastery,” an ICT report began.

In subsequent months the Chinese authorities resorted to force to resolve the issue rather than trying to find the underlying cause and to address them. While reporting the self-immolation by a monk from Kirti Monastery, our another report said more than a year later, “In February 2009, a Kirti monk in his mid-twenties was shot by security personnel when he set himself on fire as a form of protest after prayer ceremonies at the monastery were cancelled, according to several sources in the area. The monk, Tapey, had been holding a home-made Tibetan flag that had at its center a photograph of the Dalai Lama.”

“The security crackdown in Ngaba has been particularly severe following the March 16, 2008 incident. Many more monks and laypeople have been detained, tortured or ‘disappeared’ since then, and during police raids on their monastery photographs of the Dalai Lama and senior religious leaders were destroyed,” it added.

Since February 2009 10 Tibetans have self-immolated. They have called for relgious freedom and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Then in January 2010, authorities in Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala reported on the sentencing of Dolma Namgyal from Ngapa for six years. His family had no information about his whereabouts, since his arrest in Chengdu in April 2008, until 14 January 2010, the day his sentence was passed, they said.

On February 15, 2010 ICT reported, “Several hundred Tibetan monks and laypeople in the far eastern Tibetan area of Ngaba (Sichuan province) were surrounded by armed troops yesterday on the first of the five-day Tibetan New Year festival (Losar). The Tibetans had gathered together to pray for those killed in the crackdown following protests across Tibet that began in March 2008.”

“Soldiers confiscated mobile phones from Tibetans, in a likely effort to prevent images of the prayer vigil reaching the outside world as well as blocking communication between individuals. Tension remains high in Ngaba today, the second day of the Tibetan New Year,” it added.

In March 2010 there were reports that local police were collecting the phone numbers, Yahoo chat addresses and residence registration numbers of suspect monks and nuns in the monasteries in Ngapa.

A year later, we had the report of the self-immolation of Phuntsok (Phuntsog) Monk immolates himself; major protests at Tibetan monastery violently suppressed

Our report on March 16, 2011 said, “The 21-year old monk, called Phuntsog, immolated himself earlier today, which is the 3rd anniversary of a protest at Kirti in 2008 during which at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead. Police extinguished the flames and were seen beating Phuntsog before he died, according to Tibetan exiles in contact with Tibetans in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province (the Tibetan area of Amdo).”

“According to the same sources, protests then broke out against the Chinese authorities involving hundreds of monks and laypeople. After an attempted peaceful march from the monastery, police broke up the protests, detaining an unknown number of monks and beating Tibetans involved, “ the report added.

On April 11, 2011, our report said, “There is a deepening climate of fear in the Tibetan area of Ngaba, Sichuan, as a result of a worsening crackdown by the authorities following the self-immolation and death of a young monk called Phuntsog from Kirti monastery on March 16. The authorities have now imposed a lockdown on the monastery, with a new barbed wire fence and wall being built around the back of the monastic complex, and armed troops within the compound preventing monks from leaving and food from being delivered. All movement of monks is restricted and monks are even being prevented from burning incense for religious rituals. There have been several more disappearances of Tibetans from the monastery and lay community in the area, including the younger brother and uncle of the monk who set fire to himself, and a rigorous ‘patriotic education’ campaign is being enforced, creating further resentment and despair.”

“According to the same sources, armed soldiers who had been guarding the monastery entered the compound and established observation posts on the platforms of the monastery’s stupas. They also began to build a barbed wire fence at the back of the monastery, where the boundary wall does not reach. Now Chinese construction workers have been moved in to build a concrete wall in addition to the fence, and all doors to the monastery have been locked by the authorities, with no one allowed to leave or enter. Even elderly monks have not been allowed to do their ritual circumambulation of the outer path of the monastery.”

“From March 19, according to the same sources, the monastery’s regular program of religious observances was cancelled, and monks are not even allowed to burn incense for their religious offerings. “Armed soldiers and police with dogs prowl around the monastery by night, beating up any monks they come across,” said two Kirti monks now in exile in Dharamsala, India. “The monks have to study scripture in the second half of the day, and are not allowed to sit outside. For the last few days, the village committees in Ngaba county have been calling public meetings to praise and celebrate the Communist Party.” “
On April 13, 2011, Kirti Rinpoche, the head of the Kirti Monastery issued a call to his people in Ngapa from Dharamsala, India, his headquarters in exile. He appealed for calm saying,

“The ongoing repression of ordinary people, both monks and laity, driven by desperation into confrontation with the Chinese army is indeed hard to bear, but I appeal to you consider that confrontation simply heaps even more suffering on ourselves, and to frame whatever action you take within the parameters of nonviolence. For another confrontation in which more people are killed and wounded not to take place, I call on everyone to stick as much as they can to a peaceful approach by keeping their temper. That is my request, please consider it.”

Did we see any indications of the Chinese authorities comprehending the heightened tension in the area and wanting to deal with it positively. None whatsoever!

And then the latest round of self-immolations began. These have engendered much introspection within the Tibetan movement in exile (and I am sure they would have impacted those Tibetans in Tibet who know about them). It is somewhat of an emotional upheaval, too. On October 19, 2011 Tibetans and Tibet supporters the world over are organizing different events to express their solidarity with the Tibetans in Tibet.

Even now there is time for the Chinese authorities, both at the local level in Ngapa as well as in Beijing, to find the underlying cause rather than use the quick fix of force and suppression.


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