TIBETAN MONKS WHO BURNED THEMSELVES
As of 2020, according to the Tibetan government in exile, 154Tibetans had set themselves on fire since 2009, mainly in heavily ethnic Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces rather than in Tibet proper. As of 2014, 136 had self-immolated according to International Campaign for Tibet and the Tibetan activist Woeser. About 80 percent have died. Once a rare, radical action by Buddhist monks sacrificing themselves for religious and cultural reasons, self-immolations has been embraced by monks, lay people, teenagers, women, intellectuals, farmers, nomads, mothers and workers in the prime of life. There are many reasons behind self-immolations, from the trauma of forced resettlement to surveillance cameras in monasteries.
Most of the protesters have doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves alight after shouting slogans calling for Tibetan independence and blessings for the Dalai Lama, Tibet's exiled Buddhist leader. China has blamed the Dalai Lama for encouraging the self-immolations that Beijing has apparently been powerless to stop despite stepped-up security and an extensive spying network. Independent verification of events and conditions in Tibet is nearly impossible because of restrictions on travel there.
Activists say the self-immolations are in protest of Beijing’s heavy-handed rule in the region. Most of those who burned themselves have chanted for Tibetan freedom and the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. China has branded the self-immolators "terrorists" and criminals and has blamed exiled Tibetans and the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, for inciting them.
Robbie Barnett of Columbia University told Reuters that self-immolations have historically only been effective in achieving political concessions when carried out under weak governments, but they have increased solidarity within parts of the Tibetan community. Barnett said, “It hasn’t been effective in getting any change in policy, but it has been effective in mobilising sentiment within the Tibetan community inside Tibet.” The long lines of people going to pay respects and donate money to the families of people who have immolated are evidence of this, Barnett said. [Source: Reuters, December 10, 2012]
As of December 2014,according to International Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet), 136 Tibetans had self-immolated in Tibet and China since February 27, 2009, with 135 of them taking place since March 16, 2011. Of these: A) 114 were men, 22 were women; B) 110 of the 136 are known to have died following their protest; C) 24 of the Tibetans who self-immolated were 18 or under; D) 44 of the 136 are from Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province; E) 13 of the 136 were monks at Kirti monastery in Ngaba, around 200 kilometres (124 miles) from Daofu; F) 11 of the 136 are former monks at Kirti monastery in Ngaba (It is currently not known who of the nine chose to disrobe, or were expelled from the monastery by government authorities); G) Two of the 136 were nuns from Mame Dechen Chokorling nunnery in Ngaba; H) The list does not including a Rinpoche and his niece, who died in a fire. According to information from the Tibetan government in exile and Woeser, this may have been a self-immolation that was later erroneously described as a house fire. See details below on Thubten Nyandak Rinpoche and his niece Atse. There have been six self-immolations by Tibetans in exile. [Source: International Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet), December 23, 2014, savetibet.org ]
History of the Self-Immolations in Tibet
In February 2009, a young monk called Tapey from the Kirti monastery, among the most influential in the east of the Tibetan region, set himself alight carrying a homemade Tibetan flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama. He was fatally shot by police. China's Xinhua news agency reported the protest had been against government restrictions on religion in the Tibetan county of Aba in Sichuan province. The monk is believed to have doused himself with petrol and set himself alight. Witnesses then saw Chinese police shoot the man. [Source: Amelia Hill, The Guardian, March 1, 2009]
After the March 2011 self-immolation of a 20-year-old monk, Phuntsog, at the Kirti monastery in a Tibetan part of Sichuan province months of sporadic self-immolations by sympathetic monks and nuns followed. As sentiment spread, lay people in scattered villages in eastern parts of the Tibetan plateau in Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces began to self-immolate as well. The number of self-immolations peaked at 28 in November 2012, when Xi Jinping and other new national leaders was installed during the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing. By 2014, the wave of self-immolations appeared to be diminishing but several set themselves on fire at the end of the year.
Hannah Beech wrote in Time: In August 2011,Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year-old Tibetan monk living in the remote Chinese outpost of Tawu, “gulped down kerosene, bathed his body in the combustible liquid and struck a match. As he burned in the center of town, Norbu shouted for freedom in Tibet and screamed his love for the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader. Norbu lived in the Nyitso monastery, which was prevented from celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July. In previous years, locals say, monks could quietly mark the moment without official intervention. But this year was different. For the monks’ disobedience, government officials cut Nyitso’s water and electricity. The siege went on for weeks before Norbu emerged from the monastery and walked down the hill to the center of town. For a few minutes, he passed out pamphlets advocating Tibetan independence and celebrating the Dalai Lama. Then out came the kerosene.” [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 15, 2011]
Weeks later, Beech wrote, “Tawu is under virtual lockdown. New security cameras affixed to lampposts record all movements. Half a block away, a few Chinese police cradle machine guns. Every few minutes, a reddish glow — from the flashing lights of police vehicles on constant patrol — illuminates the site of martyrdom.”
Many of the self-immolations in 2011 occurred in Aba. There, a dozen monks and nuns—eight men and three women in their late teens and early 20s and one woman in her 30s — burned themselves to protest Chinese policies between March and December 2011 (another set himself on fire in February 2009). Among the dead were Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year-old Tibetan monk living in Tawu, a pair of teenage monks and a young nun whose charred body was seized in late October by Chinese security forces. Kirti monastery in Ngaba produced seven monks or former clerics who had self-immolated as of late 2011. [Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 15, 2011]
Places Where the Self-Immolations Took Place
Only a handful of the self-immolations have been reported in the Tibet Autonomous Region. The rest occurred in Tibetan-populated areas of other provinces in southwestern China. The Chinese government has confirmed some but not all of them and gave no information’s death. There are competing tallies of immolations and deaths from different groups. The International Campaign for Tibet said 42 Tibetans had self-immolated between March 2011 and May 2012. At least 24 have died. [Source: Joe McDonald, Associated Press, March 9, 2012; Simon Denyer, Washington Post, April 2, 2012]
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “A wave of self-immolations occurred in the autumn of 2011 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 of 2012 , 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. [Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2012]
Many All early self-immolations occurred in Kham either Kardze (known as Ganzi in Chinese) or the neighboring Ngaba (or Aba) prefecture. Despite Tibet’s peaceful image, the Khampas, as people from Kham are known, were renowned for centuries as fierce warriors. In the 1950s, the CIA even trained a militia of mostly Khampa resistance fighters that numbered in the thousands. Some committed suicide rather than give up their armed struggle. Aba has been the scene of numerous protests over the past several years against the Chinese government. Most are led by monks who are fiercely loyal to the Dalai Lama.
[Source: Hannah Beech, Time, November 15, 2011]
Hannah Beech wrote in Time: “More than 60 years after communist forces marched in, the high-altitude grasslands of Kardze still feel like an occupied territory. The prefectural capital’s Chinese name, Kangding, can literally mean ‘stabilize Kham.” Giant propaganda billboards loom above grazing yaks and tidy Tibetan settlements. “The police and citizens together share a common purpose to foster development,” says one in Chinese, a language that many Tibetans cannot read. “Red flags across the sky,” says another. “In the same boat we work together to build a peaceful environment.” Police jeeps rumble across unpaved paths past Tibetan nomads with gold-capped teeth, who squint through the swirl of road dust. Monasteries I visit are staffed with plainclothes police officers, easy to distinguish with their buzz cuts and alert eyes. It’s not just the thin air of a region that rises well over 13,000 ft. (4,000 m) above sea level that makes moving around here tiring. So many people, one feels, are either pretending not to watch anything or watching too carefully. The attention is exhausting.
Across Tibetan regions, owning a picture of the man Beijing calls “a wolf in monk’s clothes’ invites prison time. But in Kardze, I see the Dalai Lama’s visage everywhere. Each monastery I go to has his picture tucked away somewhere. Maroon-clad monks pull cell phones out of their thick robes to show me snapshots of their spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama’s image nestles between packets of peanuts and toilet paper in a small provisions store. A woman wells up with tears when I tell her I have been to Dharamsala, the Indian hill station where he lives.
All the Kardze monks I ask say they understand why their fellow clerics immolated themselves, breaking Buddhist vows against the taking of life. “They did this not as individuals but for the Tibetan people,” says a 20-year-old monk. “I admire their courage.”
Young Tibetans sacrificed their lives, even though their schooling is steeped in pro-Chinese propaganda. At Nyitso monastery security cameras are everywhere, as are police vehicles and plainclothes agents. The bulk of the monastery looms behind a wall. Many of the monks have been removed and sent to re-education camps, according to locals and exile groups... The Tawu government worker says some of the remaining monks in Nyitso are spies who have been deployed to monitor the others.
Woeser on the Tibetan Self-Immolations
Woeser wrote in the New York Times, “Beginning with the case of Tapey, I set about documenting on my blog the circumstances of each self-immolation. Never could I have anticipated that so many Tibetans would follow his lead and give rise to a new mode of protest. Over the years, I had trouble keeping up with how fast the flames were devouring life after life. All told, 131 Tibetans have attempted suicide by self-immolation. Tapey survived, as have some others. But ascertaining exactly how many lived through the flames is impossible to know; the police take them away, and they remain incommunicado. [Source: Tsering Woeser, New York Times, March 3, 2014 ==]
“Never before have so many Tibetans sacrificed themselves to protest Chinese rule. The self-immolations, which continue to this day, show that even after more than 60 years of Chinese control of our land and livelihoods, Beijing is far from winning the hearts and minds of Tibetans and the resistance has not diminished in the least. All the while, Beijing pursues its policy of violent suppression, never heeding Tibetans’ demands for equality for all and the return of our spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile for more than half a century.
“In the police state that is Tibet, it’s impossible to gauge public reaction to the self-immolations. Most Tibetans keep their heads down and do their best to comply with Beijing’s diktats — from flying the Chinese national flag to concealing likenesses of the Dalai Lama. But from my experience, it seems the vast majority of Tibetans harbor quiet sympathy for the self-immolators and see them as martyrs. More and more portraits of self-immolators grace shrines in Tibetan homes.
The number of self-immolations peaked at 28 in November 2012, when a new slate of national leaders was installed during the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing. It was evident that the self-immolators were hoping that they could spur the new leaders toward a policy shift on Tibet. But these hopes soon faded. Once the party’s chosen ones assumed their positions, they declared war on self-immolation, with harsh measures against “accessories,” meaning family members and relatives, villagers and even the monastery associated with any self-immolator. Since then, several hundred Tibetans have been arrested and imprisoned; many more have been given stiff fines and even barred from making pilgrimages to holy sites.
Of late, there have been far fewer self-immolations. But it would be wrong to see this as a sign that Beijing has gained the upper hand. As the early 20th-century writer Lu Xun wrote, “The crack of thunder can be heard where there is silence.” Tibetans might be quiet for now, but the thunder of their voices will someday shake Tibet — and the world.
Why After Tibetans Self-Immolating?
On why Tibetans are self immolating, Woeser wrote in the New York Times, “Those who do not understand the plight of the Tibetans see self-immolation simply as suicide. Yet there are so many other ways to die. Why would anyone choose to commit suicide by having every inch of his body charred? This question holds the key to the driving force behind these desperate acts: Self-immolators seek to protest in the most extraordinary manner by suffering what ordinary people could not possibly bear. [Source: Tsering Woeser, New York Times, March 3, 2014 ==]
“There was a time when wave after wave of Tibetans took to the streets, screamed slogans and distributed leaflets, only to be beaten up and thrown into jail. These mass rallies garnered as much notice as pebbles tossed into a stream. Since Beijing’s 2008 crackdown, the Tibet Autonomous Region has turned into what looks like an occupied zone, with checkpoint after checkpoint and military installations everywhere. Large protests can no longer even get off the ground. If Tibetans saw even a sliver of an opportunity to hold demonstrations, then they would not resort to self-immolation. This state of desperation was captured by the writer Gudrub, who declared before perishing in an act of self-immolation in the autonomous region in October 2012, “Our peaceful struggle must be radicalized.” ==
Tibetan filmmaker Losang Gyatso told the Los Angeles Times: “It’s a combination of reasons. One is the further clampdowns on monasteries and the "reeducation programs" that have begun. The response of authorities has been to describe those who commit self-immolation as marginal people, disturbed people with problems. Tibetans have taken offense at this characterization as they see these as sincere actions over serious issues that have been unaddressed. [Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013]
“It’s difficult to lump them all together as to motivation. Some are driven by the assaults on monastic life and religious practices. Some are taking action to protest language teaching changes – the substitution of Mandarin or Chinese for Tibetan as the teaching medium. Almost all had called for some easing of the crackdowns happening across Tibet. In the testimonies left behind by some – the poetry and the recordings – they all demand freedom and ask for the return of the Dalai Lama. I don’t think there is a sense in the Tibetan community of self-immolation as a kind of cult. This form of protest was preceded by years of writers and artists trying to express dissent and Tibetan identity in a more traditional way.”
Tibetans Who Commit Suicide 'Not Crazy': Dalai Lama
The self-claimed Tibetan government-in-exile, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India, has repeatedly appealed to Tibetans not to self-immolate, but it also says the message of the protesters cannot be ignored. It has criticized Beijing for imposing more draconian measures instead of addressing the grievances of Tibetans. [Source: Didi Tang, Associated Press January 31, 2013 /=]
In April 2013, the Dalai Lama said during a visit to Trento, Italy that Tibetans who have committed suicide in recent weeks were "not crazy" but were taking desperate action to escape Chinese "brutality". "Tibetans who have taken their lives to escape the torture and prisons of China are not crazy," the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader told some 3,500 supporters in the city of Trento in northern Italy. [Source: AFP, April 12, 2013]
The Dalai Lama has praised the courage of those who engage in self-immolation and has attributed the protests to what he calls China's "cultural genocide" in Tibet. He also says he does not encourage the protests. The Karmapa, a senior religious figure viewed as a possible successor to the Dalai Lama, has gone further by urging Tibetans to stop self-immolation. Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: The Dalai Lama has largely removed himself from the debate since he retired from politics in 2011 in favor of a democratically elected exiled administration headed by Lobsang Sangay, a former Harvard professor. With Sangay reduced to seemingly impotent appeals to Tibetans not to take such “drastic” actions, the exile community in Dharmsala, which did so much to keep Tibet in the public eye during the dark years of China’s Cultural Revolution, has been reduced to the role of anguished spectator as Tibetans inside their homeland take up the mantle of resistance. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, April 2, 2012]
In late 2012 the Dalai Lama said he would “remain neutral” on the question. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader told The Hindu in an interview in July in his first detailed comments on the self-immolations that the protests were “a very, very delicate” political issue. He pointed out that it would not be appropriate for him to say anything “negative” about those who had sacrificed their lives. At the same time, he rejected Chinese accusations of a “plot” and stressed that he was not encouraging the protests, instead calling on the Chinese government to examine its policies in Tibet. In November 2012 the Dalai Lama said on Indian television that the self-immolations had brought tears to his eyes. However he has so far failed to call for an end to the protests.
The Dalai Lama has said he does not encourage the protests, but has praised the courage of those who engage in self-immolation and has attributed the protests to what he calls China's "cultural genocide" in Tibet. In November 2011, The Dalai Lama told the BBC he is very worried about the growing number of monks and nuns setting themselves on fire to protest against Chinese rule in Tibet.He told the BBC he was not encouraging such actions - saying there was no doubt they required courage, but questioning how effective they were. [Source: BBC, November 18, 2011]
Tang Danhong on the Pain of the Tibetan Self-Immolations
Chinese poet and blogger Tang Danhong wrote: “Never in my life have I imagined that so many of these people whom I love, at this very moment that I am writing this essay, already over 100 men and women, wish to cover their bodies with gasoline, drink gasoline, and calmly walk down to the grasslands, or along small village paths, or to the gates of the local government building, or to the town roads, or to the gate of a temple, and on this land and under this sky that once belonged to them, set themselves on fire, to cry out in their language, and to die on this land and under this sky that was ripped away from them. What they cry out for, in a normal world, would make perfect sense. Any self-respecting people must have the freedom to possess its own language, culture, and faith, and the ability to determine its own leaders. But their dignity has been ripped away. Their language, culture, and faith have all been ripped away. All the legitimate rights of the Tibetans have been ripped away. Faced with such external, steely, unemotional resolve, perhaps they still hold out hope that their harrowing self-immolations will precipitate some change to the deaf and dumb status quo. [Source: “Fire Between the Dark and the Cold” by Tang Danhong, Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, January 2013, China Digital Times, January 9, 2013. Tang Danhong is a poet and filmmaker from Chengdu, Sichuan. She currently lives in Israel. She blogs at Moments of Samsara ]
“I can imagine the smiles and the familiar looks in the eyes of these self-immolators. I can imagine them singing and dancing, their demeanor as they serve tea and make toasts with their wine and their posture as they roll their prayer wheels. I can imagine how they open their scriptures, how they memorize the passages within, and how they worship the Eight Auspicious Signs. I can imagine how they give alms to beggars… I can imagine them, just like us, having their own tastes, favorite colors or smells, putting on more clothing as the weather gets cold just like us, recoiling when they touch something hot, just like us. I can imagine their many connections with this world. Surely they have loved ones. Surely they have loved ones whom they pity. Surely they have loved ones whom they fret over. Right?
“I admit, I am unable to imagine how they could be so desperate. I cannot imagine the intense pain they endured while alive and the excruciating pain they suffered as they burned. I once tried to stick my finger into an open flame to better understand the pain. But after just one second, I pulled my hand away. How could someone possibly endure many minutes with every inch of her skin on fire? How could someone possibly be so determined? With such endurance, why not go on enduring your life?
“Like many other worried people, I want to say, “Please do not protest in this excruciating way.” I have said before, “Stop self-immolating. Your light will not illuminate their darkness, your flame will not heat their coldness.” But this is nothing but a failed attempt to relieve some anxiety by someone from the outside world. I’ve never lived their life. My situation is completely different. My values certainly differ in some way from theirs. My parents’ peers were were not killed by another people. My country was never occupied by another people. I’ve never been forced to speak the language of my occupiers. I’ve never opened a scripture. I never had the habit of daily morning and evening prayer. I’ve never had a faith. I’ve never had to face the portraits of the “Four Leaders” in the temple halls. I’ve never had to hear those foreigners insult my masters. The rites of my religion were never abolished. I’ve never been forced to curse a deeply devoted lama . I’ve never had to face guns pointing towards my temple. I’ve never faced the barking and cursing of those heavily armed men… Perhaps it is precisely because of my inexperience that I cannot imagine the humiliation with which they live that makes them so resolute. But their own people understand the self-immolators. They gather around them and place hada all over their bodies in a display of extraordinary respect.
“But regardless, these self-immolators among this people which I adore, are so close to their “enemies.” Those heavily armed people are right beside them. Those people who insulted their masters are right beside them. Those people who ripped away their freedom and destroyed their culture are right beside them. Yet they do not so much as lay a finger on their “enemies.” They merely leave a final testament, cover themselves with gasoline, set themselves alight, and call out: Dalai Lama come home; Free Tibet; Tibet Independence… And then, they die a tragic death. The atrocities they have endured, both spiritually and physically, far surpass what I can imagine. Self-immolation is a language of intense pain, an intensely painful denouncement–a way to communicate the extent of the atrocity they endure.
:A mother seeing the blackened body of the child she once loved and cherished so dearly– I cannot imagine how heartbroken their mothers must be! A father facing the twisted deformation that once was his child–I cannot imagine how heartbroken their fathers must be! Children witnessing their scorched parents bodies burnt completely beyond recognition, never to feel their embrace or kiss again–I cannot imagine how heartbroken their children must be! I admit: I want them to stop. I’d rather they go on living, even if they live a horrible life. I’m actually scared of talking about Tibetan self-immolation. And I’ve nearly managed to maintain my silence.
Documentary About Tibetan Self-Immolations
“Fire in the Land of Snow” is a documentary about the self-immolations in Tibet. The hour-long film produced by Tibetan exile and Voice of America Tibetan Service director Losang Gyatso recounts recent Tibetan history and poses the question of why so many are choosing to protest “through one of the most painful and terrifying ways to die.”[Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013 ^=^]
On how went about getting visual images from the region, Losang Gyatso told the Los Angeles Times: “With great difficulty. What photos and pictures and video that exist today of self-immolation or the security buildups in Tibet, the images used in the film, came from individuals who took great risks to get them. They are from cellphones, primarily. Some of the footage in the film, of the security in a village outside Lhasa showing people being beaten, that actually came from Chinese security footage that leaked out. ^=^
Most of the sources interviewed in the documentary are far outside of Tibet. On how they keep abreast of whats going in Tibet, Gyatso said: “The lines of communication vary, year to year, month to month, depending on Chinese policies. Generally, the people we spoke with in the film have kept up to date with happenings in Tibet for their profession and for their passion. You can’t find a group of people more in tune with what is happening inside China than those following Tibetan issues.^=^
Chinese View of Tibetan Self-Immolations
China’s main media have given scant coverage to the self-immolation incidents. On how ordinary Chinese citizens see the issue, Losang Gyatso told the Los Angeles Times: The way the situation is presented on CCTV leaves no doubt that the average Chinese viewer would see the protests as another instance of the ungrateful Tibetans rioting. If they had unfettered access to information about what is happening in Tibet over the last 50 years, the cultural and human rights issues Tibetans are facing, I am sure the thinking Chinese person would see cause for concern and the need for remedies. [Source: Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times, June 6, 2013]
In a plea to Chinese authorities to look upon the self-immolators as fellow human beings, “ Chinese poet and blogger Tang Danhong wrote:Speaking of the Party, I must revert to speaking about it in terms of its people. After all, the Party is comprised of the people who draw up and implement all of these “measures” and “policies.” Communist Party members are human, too. They have voices and smiling faces. They have parents and children. Like all people, they have their own tastes, favorite colors or smells. Like all people they put on more clothing as the weather gets cold, and recoil away when they touch something hot. These Party members are also inextricably linked to this world. They have loved ones. They have loved ones whom they pity. They have loved ones whom they fret over. If something were to happen to one of these people, his loved ones would be heartbroken. And if something were to happen to his loved ones, he would be heartbroken, too. [Source: “Fire Between the Dark and the Cold” by Tang Danhong, Hong Kong’s Open Magazine, January 2013, China Digital Times, January 9, 2013. Tang Danhong is a poet and filmmaker from Chengdu, Sichuan. She currently lives in Israel. She blogs at Moments of Samsara ]
“Although they are now the authorities, the rulers, there’s no guarantee that their sons and daughters won’t be the pieces of meat under the swords of those with even more power in the future. In some ways, they could not be more different than the self-immolators, but biologically they are members of the same species. And because those self-immolators recognize that these Party members are also living beings, they do not harm them when they decide to lay down their lives in protest. But these very beings then go and do harm to the self-immolator’s family and loved ones. Because the challenge of this test of will for freedom is this: these Communist Party members work to deny people their natural desire for their own rights. These Communist Party members wish to selfishly cling to their control of the world.
“As one Tibetan after another sets herself on fire, I am made to see the lengths people will go to for freedom and dignity. We need only see with open eyes a nation occupied by another, colonized by another; we need only see with open eyes all the cherished cultural traditions of one group being trampled by another; we need only see with open eyes an ancient civilization being swallowed up; and we will therefore see the power of a steadfast will, the excruciating agony of ending one’s life by self-immolation, the pain of loved ones, so strong they no longer wish to live themselves, and individuals, one after another, deciding to self-immolate for dignity and freedom.”
First Self-Immolation in 2009
In February 2009, a young monk called Tapey from the Kirti monastery, among the most influential in the east of the Tibetan region, set himself alight carrying a homemade Tibetan flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama. One report said he was fatally shot by police. Another said Tapey, survived after his flames were extinguished by security officers.
Woeser wrote in the New York Times, “On February 27, 2009, three days into the Tibetan New Year, a 24-year-old monk in his crimson and yellow robe emerged from the confines of the Kirti Monastery into the streets of Ngawa, in a the Tibetan area of southwestern China. There, in the shadow of a 98-foot-tall monument to the gods of longevity, the man burst into flames — thus sparking the first of many self-immolations that spread across the Tibetan regions of China. [Source: Tsering Woeser, New York Times, March 3, 2014]
“The New Year celebrations had been muted, as Tibetans privately remembered those who had suffered in a harsh Chinese crackdown on Tibetans a year earlier — all of those who were murdered, jailed or disappeared. In the March 2008 repression, at least four Tibetans were reportedly executed, more than a thousand illegally detained and countless others went unaccounted for. Tapey, who like many Tibetans goes by one name, had left a note warning that he would set himself on fire if the prayer ceremony commemorating the victims of the 2008 crackdown was canceled. When the order came down forbidding memorials, Tapey followed through on his threat.”
Early Self Immolations and Kirti Monastery
Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: The monastery, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, had been under growing official scrutiny since 1997, its monks subject to intense sessions of “patriotic reeducation” and those deemed insufficiently enthusiastic thrown out of the order, said Lobsang Yeshi, a monk who has since fled to India but has remained in contact with his old friends. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, April 2, 2012]
“The three main monasteries in [the Tibetan capital] Lhasa were the center of Tibetan Buddhism, but now they are more or less for tourists,” he said. “But Kirti monastery is one of the few large monasteries that is still struggling to some extent. The Chinese see it as a threat to their control, and they are trying to eliminate it.”
The monks were divided on how to respond. The older ones, who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, when the monasteries of Tibet were largely destroyed and emptied, “who knew what the Chinese were capable of,” argued for cooperation, said Yeshi, while the younger ones urged resistance. The 2008 protests effectively ended the debate. Yeshi said that at least 30 people lost their lives in Ngaba, and many monks were detained for their role in the uprising. When a second self-immolation followed in March 2011, the Chinese response was dramatic.
The monastery was sealed off and 300 monks were arrested. Villagers surrounding the monastery in an attempt to protect its occupants were beaten and carried off by the truckload. The teachers and two friends of the monk who set himself afire were sentenced to a decade or more in jail for homicide. But instead of stopping the immolations, it has only encouraged more, 20 from Ngaba alone, most of them monks or former monks, but also two nuns and two lay Tibetans.
Today, the town feels like a military camp, sealed off by soldiers, barricades and barbed wire on every block, said 26-year-old nomadic herdsman Sugney Kyab, who arrived in Dharmsala this month after a harrowing escape over the Himalayas. “When we hear about the immolations we feel very helpless, all we can do is cry,” he said. “We have no voice, we can’t even make a phone call, it is so suffocating.”
Self-Immolations in 2011, in Aba and Ganzi
There were several self immolations in 2011. Prior to that year, the only known instance of a monk setting himself on fire in recent times occurred at Kirti in February 2009. In March 2011, a 21-year-old monk,called Phuntsog set himself on fire and died near Kirti Monastery in Aba county, in apparent protest against the government. Phuntsog died in hospital. The death triggered protests and prompted a clampdown by authorities around the monastery. A local court gave three monks long prison sentences in August and September for what it said was their roles in the death of Phuntsog. One of the monks was an uncle of Phuntsog.
Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times: "The self-immolation was an apparent protest against government controls,” Reuters reported. “Instead of putting out the flames, Chinese police beat the young monk, creating huge resentment in the monastery, according to exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. The Aba government said in late April that after the burning incident, it had decided to give monks "legal education," due to the "illegal activities" committed by some monks that included visiting prostitutes, getting drunk, gambling and pornography, state news agency Xinhua news agency reported.” [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, April 12, 2011]
“Chinese security forces clashed with residents who were trying to prevent the monks from being taken away for "re-education," according to Tibetan sources. "The people didn't want the authorities to arrest the monks, so they started sitting outside the monastery to protect it day and night," said prominent Beijing-based Tibetan writer Woeser, who said her information was based on witness accounts. "But the troops let out dogs to bite the people and after that, they beat them too."
“Authorities have stepped up "patriotic re-education" campaigns at Kirti, in an effort to stamp out separatist sentiment and allegiance to the Dalai Lama. "During the 'patriotic re-education' sessions, monks are taught reasons why they should not keep any pictures of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and then made to repeat them," said an exiled Tibetan monk, Kanyag Tsering, who gets his information through a network of contacts inside Aba.”
In August 2011, a Tibetan Buddhist monk protesting Chinese policies immolated himself publicly in Ganzi, the second such act in five months.The monk was heard calling, “We Tibetan people want freedom,” “Long live the Dalai Lama” and “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet,” after he drank gasoline, doused himself with it and set himself alight on a bridge in the center of Daofu, a town in Ganzi County in Sichuan, according to Free Tibet. [Source: Rick Gladstone New York Times August 15, 2011]
Stephanie Brigden, the director of Free Tibet, identified the monk who killed himself as Tsewang Norbu, 29. She said he was protesting what she described as the harsh treatment of Tibetans following the March 16 immolation by a monk from the Kirti monastery in Aba, or Ngaba in Tibetan, in the same region of Sichuan. She said the repression worsened further when Tibetans in Daofu and elsewhere defied a government ban on celebrating the Dalai Lama’s 76th birthday on July 6. “We’ve basically seen an escalation in the clamping down,” she said. “It is not just limited to this area.” She said that telephone and Internet access had been cut and that the group had “received reports that the army has surrounded the monastery.”
Afterwards AFP reported soldiers and police surrounded a monastery in Daofu where the Tibetan monk set himself on fire and died, cutting off power, water and food to around 100 people inside, witnesses said. “There are at least 1,000 soldiers and police guarding the monastery and about 100 monks inside,” one monk said from inside the monastery. “The power and water have been cut off for days, and we have no food supplies coming in.” Hotel and restaurant owners in Daofu said there was a heavy army and police presence in the city, and they were not accepting foreigners. “There are many soldiers and police on the streets, they have surrounded the monastery and the government headquarters,” said a hotel owner, speaking on condition of anonymity. A restaurant owner said the police and army had set up roadblocks around the county and were checking every vehicle that approached the government headquarters and the monastery. [Source: AFP, August 16, 2011]
On Sept. 26, two other young monks at Kirti set themselves on fire, but were believed at the time to have survived. One of the two monks, Lobsang Kalsang, was a brother of Phuntsog.
Self-Immolations in October 2011
In early October 2011 the New York Times reported: A young Tibetan monk set himself on fire to protest Chinese policies, becoming the fourth monk from Kirti Monastery to self-immolate this year, according to Free Tibet. Free Tibet said in a news release that the monk, Kalsang, set himself ablaze at 2 p.m. in a vegetable market in the town of Aba, known in Tibetan as Ngaba. Kalsang was holding a picture of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled religious leader, at the time and called for religious freedom, the group said. Security officers extinguished the flames. the group said, but the monk’s condition was unclear. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, October 3, 2011]
A few days before the forth self-immolation Tibetans in the town of Seda in Sichuan Province, known in Tibetan as Serthar, hung a large picture of the Dalai Lama from a central building, according to a blog post by Woeser, a Tibetan writer who lives in Beijing. When the authorities took down the picture and a Tibetan flag, about 200 Tibetans held a peaceful protest in the streets. Leaflets were passed around that called for resistance to China. A translation by High Peaks Pure Earth, a blog that tracks Tibet news, said the first two lines of one leaflet were: “Tibetan brethren do not fall asleep under the oppression of the Chinese. Fight for the your religion, language and customs.”
In early October 2011, Free Tibet, said in a statement that rumors were circulating in the region, known as Aba or Ngagba in Tibetan, that “many more people were prepared to give up their lives in protest. Free Tibet said the two teenagers, identified as Choepel, 19, and Khayang, 18, set themselves on fire at midday. The group said Choepel died at the scene and that Khayang’s condition was unknown. [Source: Rick Gladstone, New York Times October 7, 2011]
The group said the two, who both were wearing layman’s clothing at the time, were believed to have been former monks at the Kirti Monastery. It said Choepel was expelled in March, after the first self-immolation there, for reasons unclear. The group said it was also unclear why Khayang had left Kirti, but that his uncle was one of at least 20 people killed in the 2008 riots and crackdown by Chinese forces.
Stephanie Brigden, the director of Free Tibet, said in a statement that Tibetans were sharing news of the self-immolations in online chat rooms and through word of mouth, despite the risk of severe penalties by local Chinese authorities who forbid the distribution of such information. “Tibetans are determined that these acts do not go unnoticed,” she said.
Tibetan Nuns Self Immolate
In October 2011, a young Tibetan nun from the embattled Tibetan area of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) set fire to herself in a protest, according to exiled Tibetan sources in contact with Tibetans in the area. Free Tibet reported: Tenzin Wangmo, a 20 year-old Tibetan nun from Mame Dechen Chokorling nunnery (also known as Mame nunnery) in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province (Tibetan region of Amdo), died after self-immolating at the Sumdo bridge, located below Mame nunnery, approximately three kilometers outside of Ngaba county town. According to the same sources, Tenzin Wangmo called for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet and for religious freedom, during a protest that lasted approximately 10 minutes. Tenzin Wangmo’s body was taken back to the nunnery before police arrived, whereupon the authorities demanded that her body be turned over or buried the same day, according to the same exile sources. The nuns of Mame nunnery refused, after which soldiers and police cordoned off the nunnery and surrounding villages. Details are still emerging, however, according to the same exile sources, Tenzin Wangmo’s body was cremated on the evening of October 17, by order of the authorities. [Source: Free Tibet , October 21, 2011] Tenzin Wangmo is from Chakorma in Ngaba county. Mame nunnery belongs to the Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism. With over 350 nuns, it is the largest nunnery in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province. According to exile Tibetan sources, on October 19 a large number of Tibetans from the Ngaba area gathered in the streets of Ngaba county town, wearing Tibetan dress, reciting prayers, and fasting in solidarity amidst the ongoing crackdown. The Tibetans gathered twice attempted to organize a protest, but police and soldiers brandishing firearms dispersed the crowds both times. Tibetans in nearby villages also gathered in Tibetan dress to recite prayers and fast, according to the same sources. A large number of Tibetans visited Kirti monastery and other local monasteries in Ngaba, where they held religious activities, including circumambulation, performed prostrations, burned incense, lite butter lamps, and hung Buddhist flags.
Tibetan shops and restaurants in Ngaba, which closed on October 8 in solidarity and in mourning over the recent self-immolations of Kirti monks or former monks, remained closed as of October 16. The displays of solidarity among Tibetans comes despite Tibetans in Ngaba recently being required to attend meetings held in every township in the area where government officials informed them that monks were not allowed to hold prayer services for those who recently died while holding “anti-government” protests. The officials indicated that local community leaders and family members would be held responsible if these instructions were not followed, according to exile Tibetan sources. According to at least one Tibetan in the area, the number of security personnel, including military vehicles and police vans patrolling Ngaba county town, and security checkpoints in the area, have increased over the last several days.
In November 2011, the New York Times reported: “A Buddhist nun in southwest Sichuan Province died after setting herself on fire, becoming the 11th Tibetan to embrace a grisly protest against Chinese rule and at least the sixth to die doing so. The death of the nun, Qiu Xiang, 35, was reported by Xinhua, the official news agency, and confirmed by exile groups, who gave her Tibetan name as Palden Choetso. She was the second nun in the predominantly Tibetan region to take her own life by self-immolation. Like two previous cases, the most recent suicide took place in Ganzi Prefecture, known as Kardze in Tibetan, which is the site of several important Buddhist monasteries that have been under especially tight restrictions in recent months. Last week, a Tibetan monk, Dawa Tsering, set himself on fire during a religious ceremony at a monastery there. [Source: Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, November 3, 2011]
Xinhua wrote a short news article about the latest case, saying the nun set fire to herself at a road crossing in Dawu County shortly before 1 p.m. The report said the local authorities were investigating her motives. Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet said the nun reportedly made a plea for religious freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader, as her robes went up in flames. Ms. Saunders, citing the account of a local Tibetan, said fellow nuns took the injured woman back to their monastery, where she died a short time later. The local Tibetan said the authorities had since locked down the area and sent troops into the nunnery, which is known as Ganden Jangchup Choeling.
The BBC has obtained graphic footage of the moment she set herself alight, prompting horrified cries from onlookers. Later, Chinese security forces flooded the area. The shocking video footage was smuggled across the border to India and shown to the BBC.
Self-Immolations in 2012
In January 2012, Free Tibet reported that two people had set themselves on fire in southwest China in the latest in a series of apparent self-immolation protests against Chinese rule. The activist group said that witnesses saw a man set himself on fire Friday near a monastery in Aba prefecture in Sichuan province. It says security forces put out the flames and took the man away. His condition was unknown. Free Tibet said someone else died about the same time in a self-immolation nearby. It gave no other details. The claims could not be independently confirmed. A woman who answered the phone at the prefecture government office on Saturday said she did not know anything about the incidents and hung up without giving her name. Calls to local police offices rang unanswered. [Source: AP, January 6, 2012]
In early February 2012, Sharon LaFraniere wrote in the New York Times: “In a fresh illustration of growing turmoil among ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan Province, three livestock herders have set themselves on fire to protest what they saw as political and religious repression at the hands of the Chinese authorities, according to a Tibetan rights group and an ethnic Tibetan living in Beijing. If confirmed, the latest cases would bring the total self-immolations over the past year to 19, an unprecedented wave of self-inflicted violence among the tiny ethnic minority in China, according to scholars. They were also apparently the first by lay people, rather than current or former members of the clergy, suggesting that self-immolation may be gaining popularity as a form of dissent. [Source: Sharon LaFraniere, New York Times, February 7, 2012]
The incidents took place Friday in a remote village in Seda County, once a center of Buddhist teaching, but reports did not surface until the weekend because the government has cut Internet and telephone connections to the area, said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet in Beijing. She said that one of the three men had died and that the two others, believed to be about 30 and 60 years old, were severely injured.
Local officials denied any new self-immolations had occurred. “Everything is all right here although we still have no Internet access,” Wang Yongkang, the party secretary for Seda County told Global Times, a Communist Party English-language daily. The self-styled Tibetan government in exile said Monday it has not confirmed the reports from Seda. But at a press conference in Dharamsala, India, the organization’s seat, one official said the self-immolations should provoke the Chinese government to re-examine its repressive policies toward Tibetans. “What is so wrong in Tibet that people are resorting to such drastic action?” asked Dicki Chhoyang, head of the information department.
In January 2012, police clashed with protesters in Seda, which is on the border of Gansu Province, and in Luhuo County, known in Tibetan as Draggo, about 80 miles, to the south. Accounts of the number of deaths ranged from two to as many as 11, with dozens wounded. Chinese officials assert that security officers shot one rioter dead in self-defense on January 23 after a mob armed with rocks, batons and gas bottles stormed the police station Luhuo. Another protester was killed in Seda the following day when rioters attacked the police station there, they said. Beofre that ethnic Tibetans who set themselves afire were all reported to be monks, nuns or former clergy members.The latest reports suggest that self-immolation as a form of protest is spreading beyond the Tibetan clergy, Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University in New York, told the New York Times.
Ms. Woeser, the poet, said that the three recent victims had herded sheep and cows and were not members of the clergy. Unlike the others, they lived far from the larger towns and monasteries where past cases had occurred, according to media reports. “There is a lot of frustration in the Tibetan areas,” Mr. Barnett said. “People are saying they aren’t being listened to; the government didn’t respond constructively to the protests in 2008 and didn’t respond constructively to the whole year we’ve seen of self-immolations.” In Sichuan Province in particular, he said, the authorities have blocked off monasteries and adopted other aggressive measures that have raised tensions.
In late March 2012, AP reported: A 20-year-old Tibetan monk named Sherab who studied at the Kirti monastery in Aba county in western China, set himself ablaze exiled Tibetan monks Kanyag Tsering and Losang Yeshe said in a statement. Sherab shouted slogans as he burned on the main street in his hometown of Jialuo, then died at the site, said the exiles who had belonged to the same monastery but now live in Dharmsala, India. They said police removed Sherab's body to prevent local residents from taking it to hold a funeral. [Source: Associated Press, March 29, 2012]
In late March 2012, AP reported: Jamyang Palden burned himself in Tongren, a monastery town in Qinghai province, and survived after security forces put out the blaze, the official Xinhua News Agency and London-based Free Tibet said. Palden walked out of Rongwo Monastery in the morning dressed in a gasoline-soaked robe, then used a lighter to burn himself, Xinhua said, citing a county government spokesman. Free Tibet said Palden went to a public square, prostrated three times beside Rongwo Monastery and shouted "Let His Holiness return! Freedom for Tibet and the Tibetan language!" before he set himself on fire. Security forces put out the fire by covering Palden's body with a sheet, the group said. Palden was taken to a hospital, but was brought back to the monastery by monks who feared he would be arrested by Chinese authorities, Free Tibet said. Xinhua said officials were talking with the monk's relatives to try to send Palden to a hospital in the provincial capital of Xining where he could receive better medical treatment. Free Tibet said Palden took part in the Tibetan protests in 2008. The group said about 500 monks and other Tibetans gathered in the town square to demonstrate, with some holding up images of their exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Monks from other monasteries were traveling to the town to express their solidarity and people trying to enter the town were being stopped and questioned by plainclothes security, it said. [Source: AP, March 14, 2012]
In March 2012 AFP reported: A 20-year-old Tibetan Buddhist monk has died in detention after he set himself on fire, a US-based rights group said. Lobsang Tsultrim, a monk from the Kirti monastery in Aba town, died on Monday after setting himself alight last week, the International Campaign for Tibet said, citing Tibetan monks now living in exile in India. [Source: AFP, March 2012] In mid July 2012, Associated Press reported: “An 18-year-old monk set himself on fire and died in southwestern China. Lobsang Lozin, from the Gyalrong Tsodun Kirti Monastery, died after setting himself on fire around noon and local Tibetans blocked a bridge to prevent police from moving in, the exile government based in Dharamsala, India, said. A photo shared by the government-in-exile showed a blackened body lying on the ground and engulfed in flame. Three people in the background were praying as they lowered their heads and put their palms together. [Source: Associated Press, July 17 2012]
“A few days later AFP reported: “Two young Tibetans in a remote area of northwest China set themselves alight, state media and a rights group said. The men, both in their 20s, set themselves on fire in Qinghai province's Chenduo county after leaving a letter calling for solidarity among Tibetans, the London-based Free Tibet said in a statement. The official Xinhua news agency confirmed the incident, quoting local authorities as saying one man — allegedly a migrant carpenter from neighbouring Sichuan — was "seriously injured" and still unconscious. The other victim, a herder, died, it added. The report said authorities did not provide names or ages for the two, but Free Tibet identified them as Nyawang Norpal, 22, and Tenzin Kaldrup, 24, who died at the scene. Radio Free Asia reported that the two carried Tibetan flags and called for independence for Tibet as well as the return of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. It said one of the men, whose name it gave as Tenzin Khedup, was a former monk. Last week in Qinghai — where a large number of Tibetans live — a middle-aged Tibetan man died after setting himself ablaze. [Source: AFP, June 21, 2012]
Teenage Nun and Three Tibetan Women Set Themselves on Fire in February and March 2012
In February 2012, AP reported: “An 18-year-old Tibetan nun identified as Tenzin Choezin, set herself on fire and survivedat the Mamae nunnery in Sichuan province's Aba prefecture. A statement by Free Tibet said said Choezin shouted slogans of protest against the Chinese government before setting herself on fire at a junction close to the nunnery. "Soldiers and police came immediately and took her away," the statement said. "Soldiers then surrounded the nunnery and sealed it off." [Source: AP, February 12, 2012]
A statement by two Tibetan monks exiled in India, Losang Yeshe and Kanyag Tsering, distributed by the International Campaign for Tibet, said Choezin was the eldest of four children and a good student. The Mamae nunnery has a history of showing fierce loyalty to the Dalai Lama. In October, a 20-year-old nun from the same nunnery died after setting herself on fire and a group of nuns at Mamae staged a protest march in 2008, carrying a portrait of the Dalai Lama, which led to mass detentions and prison terms for some of the nuns, the ICT statement said.
In early March 2012, AP reported: “A 32-year-old mother of four set herself ablaze and died in Aba and an 18-year-old identified only as Dorje died after self-immolating, according to reports from the International Committee for Tibet and U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia. The official Xinhua News Agency confirmed the immolation of another woman in neighboring Gansu province, but said that the 20-year-old student may have been pushed to suicide because of pressure at school and because of a head injury .Xinhua quoted local officials in Gansu province as saying that Tsering Kyi had been hospitalized after hitting her head on a radiator and suffered fainting spells prior to setting herself on fire.Xinhua said her school grades started to slip, "which put a lot of pressure on her and made her lose her courage for life and study."
The student set herself ablaze on Saturday at a vegetable market in Maqu, Gansu province, and died at the scene, the report said, without giving her name or age. Chinese market vendors threw stones at her burning body, the broadcaster added, citing an unidentified exile with connections to the Tibetan community in Maqu. The London-based group Free Tibet said the student was Tsering Kyi, 20, and that she had returned to her hometown just days earlier.The group quotes her as saying before her death that Tibetans were burning themselves in Aba, a town in Sichuan province under lockdown by Chinese authorities, and other areas. After setting herself alight at the market, the student raised her hand above her head in a fist several times, Free Tibet added. [Source: Associated Press, March 5, 2012]
A day earlier a woman identified only as Rinchen set herself on fire in front of a police station by the main gate to the Kirti monastery in Aba. Radio Free Asia said she was a mother of three young children, while Free Tibet said she had four. Radio Free Asia reported that Rinchen called for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet and freedom for Tibet as she set herself alight, quoting an exiled Tibetan monk in India, Kanyak Tsering.
Self-immolation of Lobsang Jamyang
Simon Denyer wrote in the Washington Post: He walked three times around the rural monastery he had attended as a small child, cycled into town and had a simple vegetarian meal with a friend. Then 22-year-old Lobsang Jamyang excused himself to go to the bathroom. Inside, he doused himself with gasoline. When he emerged, he was already in flames. Jamyang then ran a few yards to the intersection at the center of the eastern Tibetan town of Ngaba, faced its huge main Kirti monastery and shouted slogans calling for Tibetan independence from China and for the return of the Dalai Lama, the region’s exiled religious leader. [Source: Simon Denyer, Washington Post, April 2, 2012]
In the tense and heavily militarized town, police first kicked him and beat him with clubs spiked with nails before dousing the flames, according to witness reports compiled by refugee groups in Dharmsala. Before he died, Jamyang had given the friend he lunched with three messages, said a close friend. One was that Tibetans in his village should work harder to preserve their language against the onslaught of Mandarin; the second was that a couple in his village who had recently divorced should reunite.
“The third message was that Tibetans should be very strong to face China, that Tibetans should not be cowards and should not remain silent,” said the friend, who fled his homeland for Dharmsala but remains in touch with local people. Today, Dharmsala is home to thousands of Tibetans, grouped around the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 as an uprising there was ruthlessly crushed.
Jamyang, who came from a desperately poor nomadic family, became a monk at age 5, but at 10 he left to attend a Tibetan school. Just five years later, with his family facing financial problems, he was forced to leave. His friend remembered him as someone who loved lying in the grass and playing as his family’s sheep and yak grazed. “That was very funny to me when I reflect on his life,” the friend said.
But if Jamyang was passionate about Tibet’s rolling grasslands, over the years he also became passionate about politics, joining an association in his village trying to preserve the Tibetan language, a move that earned him trouble with the authorities. In 2008, when the protests erupted, he warned his brothers that he was going to do something unique. “His brothers took it as if he was just boasting,” the friend said. “But what I would like to mention is that he is very passionate about whatever he does.”
Lhasa Capital Sees First Anti-China Self-immolations
In late May 2012, Reuters reported: “Two Tibetan men set themselves on fire in central Lhasa the first in a series of self-immolation protests against Chinese rule over Tibet to take place in the regional capital, the Xinhua state news agency said. Police put out the flames within two minutes but one of the men died, it said. The other was seriously injured but later able to talk. "They were a continuation of the self-immolations in other Tibetan areas and these acts were all aimed at separating Tibet from China", Xinhua quoted Hao Peng, head of the Communist Party's Commission for Political and Legal Affairs in the Tibet Autonomous Region, as saying. [Source: Reuters, May 28, 2012]
“The self-immolations took place on Pargor, or Barkhor, Street, Xinhua said. The area is one of Lhasa's busiest quarters, adjacent to the Jokhang Temple, and is often crowded with pilgrims and tourists. Xinhua said downtown Lhasa was particularly crowded for a celebration. Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York, said he had heard reports of the self-immolations from people in Lhasa, with a person describing the city as "boiling". "For the Chinese authorities, it has very serious implications and suggests that the movement is spreading among Tibetans," Barnett told Reuters. "It could lead to an increased severity of restrictions and controls.” The U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia said Lhasa was "filled with police and paramilitary forces and the situation is very tense". The Chinese term for the Jokhang Temple was blocked on the popular microblogging site Sina Weibo.
In late May 2012, security forces in Lhasa have detained or expelled hundreds of residents and pilgrims, according to a local source, after two monks set themselves on fire outside the Jokhang Temple in the most serious protest the city has seen since the March 2008 riots. The Telegraph reported: “The incident was the first of its kind in the Tibetan capital, which has been under tight security since deadly anti-Chinese government riots broke out there in 2008. Residents of Lhasa said the city was under even tighter security than usual following the protest, with police and paramilitary officers out in force. One resident contacted by AFP said police were carrying out identity checks in the streets and that mobile telephone signals had been blocked. Free Tibet, a London-based campaign group, also said it had received reports that Tibetan residents in Lhasa had been arbitrarily detained in the wake of the protest. [Source: China Digital Times, May 31, 2012] “According to Voice of America, the latest wave of self-immolations comes after Chinese officials banned members of the Party, government officials and students from observing Tibetan Buddhism’s holy month of Saka Dawa. Reuters also reported that China has labeled the self-immolators “terrorists” and blamed the Dalai Lama for the incident. NPR’s Renee Montagne spoke with Tibet expert Robert Barnett of Columbia University, who tweeted that “Lhasa is boiling.” He called the self-immolations in Lhasa a “huge symbolic setback for China” and said it is difficult to predict how the incoming generation of Chinese leaders will address the situation in Tibet.”
Self Immolations by Tibetans in October 2012
In late October 2012, AP reported: “Another Tibetan has set himself on fire while shouting slogans calling for the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet, a London-based rights group said. Free Tibet said Lhamo Kyeb, a 27-year-old father of two children, died near a monastery in northwestern China's Gansu province. Citing a witness, it said he set himself on fire and ran toward Bhora monastery in Xiahe county and that state security forces standing nearby ran after him and tried to put out the flames. The witness said Lhamo Kyeb attempted to stop them from extinguishing the fire, forcing them to back away, and then he walked toward the monastery and fell to the ground. [Source: AP, October 21, 2012]
In late October 2012, AP reported: “A Tibetan man has died after setting himself on fire to protest Chinese rule over the Himalayan region, a rights group said, the latest in a line of dozens of Tibetans to use self-immolation as a form of dissent. Sangye Gyatso, a 27-year-old father of two, called out for freedom of religion and language in Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans' exiled spiritual leader, before setting himself on fire Saturday in northwest China's Gansu province, Free Tibet said in a statement. The incident happened around midday near a monastery outside the city of Tsoe, known as Hezuo in Chinese, the London-based group said. [Source: AP, October 6, 2012]
"Sangye Gyatso's protest demonstrates the absolute determination of Tibetans to secure their freedom, no matter what the personal cost may be," Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said in a statement. The group said Sangye Gyatso's body was carried to nearby Dokar Monastery, where monks prayed for him, and was then taken a short distance to Dzeruwa village, where his family had gathered. He had a 7-year-old son and a 5-year-old daughter, according to Free Tibet. There was a large military presence at the monastery and the village following the self-immolation, Free Tibet said.
The day before the Indian newspaper The Hindu reported: “A Tibetan writer and poet who studied in India died after setting himself on fire to protest Chinese policies in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), according to monks in Dharamsala and Tibetan sources. Gudrup (43) set himself on fire in a town in TAR’s Nagqu prefecture, they said. He had left a note on a popular Chinese social networking website, called QQ, in which he called for “unity among all Tibetans", the monks added. [Source: Ananth Krishnan, The Hindu, October 5, 2012]
His self-immolation came less than a week after reports said a young Tibetan had died in a similar protest in northwestern Qinghai. Earlier in the week, week, exiled groups reported four Tibetans, including two teenage monks, were jailed by authorities for allegedly conveying news of the protests and assisting a monk in carrying out a self-immolation in Aba, the Sichuan town where most of the protests have taken place. The jail terms ranged from seven to 11 years, the groups said.
According to a monk in India, Gudrup studied at the Tibetan Transit School in Dharamsala before returning to Tibet in 2005. He often used the pen name “Youth of the Snow Realm”. The Beijing-based Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser posted on her blog a translation of one of Gudrup’s writings. “Brothers and sisters of the snow-covered Tibetan land, when looking back at our past it is rarely a joyful scene,” he wrote. “We must not lose our faith, we must strengthen our unity".
Several Self Immolations in One Family
Barbara Demick wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “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."[Source: Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times, November 5, 2012]
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.
Self Immolations Increase in November 2012 as China’s New Leaders Are Announced
In mid November 2012, AP reported: “A Tibetan taxi driver set herself on fire and died in the latest protests against Chinese rule over her homeland, overseas rights groups confirmed. Chagmo Kyi, a mother of two children, burnt herself to death in a square in Tongren county in the western Chinese province of Qinghai. It was the eighth self-immolation in the Tongren area this month, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet said. Tibet support groups say an increase in protests in the past two weeks coincided with the Communist Party Congress in Beijing.[Source: AP, November 19, 2012]
A few days before AFP reported: “Two Tibetans were reported to have set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule, said a rights group, on the same day the Communist Party unveiled its new generation of leaders. If confirmed, the incidents would bring the total number of people setting themselves on fire in Tibetan areas to 12 in 10 days, since the day before the start of the 18th Communist Party congress in Beijing. Free Tibet said the man and woman set themselves alight in two separate incidents in different areas of the town of Tongren in China's northwest Qinghai province. The 23-year-old woman, who was named as Tingzin Dolma, died from her injuries, the rights group said late on Thursday. Details on the 18-year-old man, including whether he survived, were not available due to "severe restrictions" on communications in the area, Free Tibet said. Chinese state media reported on Thursday that a 14-year-old boy died after self-immolating in Tongren, in what appears to be a separate incident. [Source: AFP, November 16, 2012]
The three reported incidents happened on the same day Beijing's new leaders were paraded in front of the media the day after the highly-sensitive congress ended the day before. The latest reported incidents follow the deaths of two men after they set fire to themselves in Tongren on Chinese news agency Xinhua reported. In early November 2012, AFP reported: “A Tibetan man died after self-immolating, China's state media said, the seventh person to set themselves on fire in the last week as the ruling Communists gather for a leadership transition. The 18-year-old set himself ablaze in front of a monastery in northwestern China's Gansu province, state-run Xinhua news agency said. The immolations have gained pace in recent months and particularly in the past week as the Communist Party opened a sensitive congress with a once-a-decade transition of power in the party. The Communists, who face widespread social unrest across the country, particularly in minority areas, have sought to project an image of national unity under the Communist Party banner during the highly stage-managed gathering. The escalating protests have been aimed at undercutting the facade, according to representatives of the Tibetan government-in-exile in India. [Source: AFP, November 11, 2012]
In the latest incident, a man identified as Gonpo Tsering set himself alight in Gansu province's Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Gannan, Xinhua reported. Other self-immolations have included an 18-year-old man who did so outside a monastery in Qinghai province and a 23-year-old woman who died after setting herself alight in the area, the exiled government said. It also said a trio of young monks set themselves on fire in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province, leaving one dead and the others injured, while another burning took place in Tibet itself. Local residents and overseas Tibetan rights groups have said thousands of Tibetans amassed in streets in the city of Tongren in Qinghai province in the past two days to demand an end to Chinese repression. The residents and groups said Chinese police responded by ramping up the security presence in the area.
On sidelines of the party congress in Beijing, officials from the Tibetan Communist Party angrily denounced the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and overseas Tibetan "separatists" for orchestrating the immolations to breed unrest. "The Dalai Lama clique and overseas Tibetan separatists have been sacrificing other people's lives for their own secret political aims," said Losang Gyaltsen, vice chairman of the Tibet region's government. He also said authorities in Tibet were ramping up ID checks in the region to thwart further immolations. Despite the coming leadership change, political analysts say no rethink of Tibet policy is expected as Beijing fears any hint of indecision could further embolden restive minority groups.
Other self-immolations since November 7 have included a man who died after setting himself alight on Saturday afternoon in the northwestern Gansu province, Xinhua also reported. An 18-year-old man died after he set fire to himself outside a monastery in Qinghai and a 23-year-old woman died after setting herself alight in the same area, the exiled government said. It also said a trio of young monks set themselves on fire on November 7 in a Tibetan area of Sichuan province, in southwest China, leaving one dead and the others injured, while another burning took place in Tibet itself. A local shop owner in Tongren who gave his surname as Wang, told AFP that communications were restricted in the town. "I do not know anything about the self-immolations, but we have not been able to use the internet for the last four or five days and we cannot make long distance phone calls," he said. "We were told the underground cable was broken, but we all know that is not true."
Tibetans Who Self-Immolated in 2013
Tsultrim Gyatso set himself on fire and died on December 19, 2013 in Amchok town in Sangchu (Xiahe) county Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu. He was 41. A Tibetan monk from Amchok Monastery, he called for unity among Tibetans and the return of the Tibetan spiritual leader His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He died instantly and soon local Tibetans and monks took his charred body to his monastery. Sources told Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD) that over 400 monks have gathered at to recite prayers and conduct rituals at the deceased’s residence at the monastery. In his last note, Tsultrim Gyatso wrote that the reasons for his self-immolation protest are to call for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet, release the 11th Panchen Lama Gedun Choekyi Nyima, and for the welfare of the six million Tibetans. [Source: International Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet), December 23, 2014, savetibet.org ]
In April 2013, three Tibetans have died after setting themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in Aba prefecture of Sichuan Province. Associated Press reported: “Exiled Tibetan monks Losang Yeshe and Kanyag Tsering and the Free Tibet group said two of the latest three protesters were monks at a monastery in Ruo'ergai county of Aba prefecture.U.S. broadcaster Radio Free Asia reported that a Tibetan woman in Rangtang county in the same prefecture also died after self-immolating Wednesday. [Source: Associated Press , April 24, 2013]
In March 2013, a Tibetan mother of four killed herself by setting herself on fire to protest Chinese rule, according to a report on Monday by Radio Free Asia. The report said Kalkyi, 30, self immolated near a monastery in the county of Dzamthang in Ngaba Prefecture, which has been a focal point of the wave of Tibetan self-immolations that began in 2009. Ms. Kalkyi’s self-immolation took place around 3:30 p.m. and her body was taken by locals to the Jonang monastery. According to Radio Free Asia, citing sources inside Tibet. Ms. Kalkyi had three sons and one daughter, all under the age of 15. On March 13, another woman, Konchog Wangmo, 31, killed herself by self-immolation in Ngaba Prefecture, and her husband, Drolma Kyab, was later detained by the authorities, the news service reported. [Source: Edward Wong, New York Times, March 25, 2013]
In February 2013, two Tibetan monks in their early 20s set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule near dozens of pilgrims who had gathered for prayers to mark the end of the Tibetan New Year festival, Washington, D.C.-based, International Campaign for Tibet reported. One of the monks, Tsesung Kyab, set himself ablaze outside a temple in Luqu county in northwestern Gansu province. The other, Phagmo Dundrup, self-immolated ablaze a day earlier at a monastery in neighboring Qinghai province. The ICT said large numbers of religious pilgrims had gathered at both monasteries for prayer ceremonies to commemorate the end of the Tibetan new year festival, Losar. The group says it received images of the self-immolation in Luqu, in which pilgrims watched as Tsesung Kyab was ablaze.[Source: Associated Press, February 26, 2013]
Earlier in February 2013, two Tibetan teenagers set themselves on fire in a double self-immolation in Aba prefecture of Sichuan province, Tibet rights advocacy groups said. Seventeen-year-old Richen and his childhood friend Sonam Dargye, 18, were among the youngest to have died after staging the fiery protests.
Tibetans Who Self-Immolated 2014
Thinley Namgyal set himself on fire and died on April 15, 2014 in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province. He was 32. He self-immolated at noon in Khangsar township in Tawu (in Chinese, Daofu) county in Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture to protest Chinese rule, triggering a security alert and a clampdown on information flow, according to sources. [Source: International Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet), December 23, 2014, savetibet.org ]
Dolma set herself on fire and died on March 29, 2014 in Bathang county, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham). She was 31. She set fire to herself outside a monastery on March 29, the first self-immolation in Bathang county, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham). Lobsang Palden set himself on fire and died on March 16, 2014 at Kirti monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) county town. He was 20. According to RFA: “The monks, citing local contacts, said Palden self-immolated to protest “against the violent crackdown on the Tibetans” on March 16, 2008 in Ngaba when Chinese police opened fire on a crowd of Tibetans, killing at least 10, including one monk.”
Lobsang Dorje set himself on fire on February 13, 2014 in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) county town. He was 25. A former Kirti monk set fire to himself on February 13, on the main road near the monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) county town, after attending a monastic mask dance that morning. Twenty-five year old Lobsang Dorje was still alive when he was taken away by police. Kirti monks in exile said: “As they were driving him away in the back of a pickup van covered with black canvas, he sat up and joined his palms, but the policemen pushed him back down. At present it is not known whether he is alive or dead, or where he has been taken.” Lobsang Dorje, from Chukle Gongma nomadic area in Cha Ruwa, Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) set fire to himself in the same street as Kirti monk Tapey, who was the first Tibetan in Tibet to self-immolate five years ago this month in February 2009.
Phagmo Samdup set himself on fire on February 5, 2014 in Dokarmo town in Tsekhog (Chinese: Zeku) in Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai, the Tibetan area of Amdo. He was in his late twenties. Phagmo Samdup set fire to himself at around 9:30pm in the evening. It appears that not many people were outside to witness the self-immolation. Police on patrol extinguished the fire and took Phagmo Samdup away, and it is not known if he survived, Tibetan sources said, adding he had been taken to Tsekhog county town.
Kalsang Yeshe set himself on fire and died on December 23, 2014 in Tawu, the Tibetan area of Kham. He was in his late twenties or thirties. He was a Tibetan monk known for his work teaching others about Buddhism. Kalsang Yeshe self-immolated near a police station that had been established recently by his monastery, Nyitso, where repression of monks and local people has been particularly intense in recent years. [Source: International Campaign for Tibet (Save Tibet), December 23, 2014, savetibet.org ]
Tseypey set herself on fire and died on December 22, 2014 in the center of a town in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), the Tibetan area of Amdo. She was 19. She was the fourth of six children from a family in Meruma township. Tseypey was described by Tibetans who knew her as “well-behaved, honest and gentle”, according to Kirti monks in exile in Dharamsala. She had not received a formal education but grew up working as a herder with her parents. According to the same sources, her 60 year old father and 50 year old mother have reportedly been taken away by police, but it is not clear whether they have been detained.
Lhamo Tashi set himself on fire and died on September 17, 2014 in Tsoe City, the capital of Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Gansu Province (the Tibetan area of Amdo). He was in his early twenties. A Tibetan student, Lhamo Tashi, set fire to himself outside a government Public Security Bureau headquarters in Tsoe City, where he was studying. After setting himself on fire at around midnight, Lhamo Tashi, was taken away by police.
Kunchok set himself on fire and survived on September 16, 2014 in Golog (Chinese: Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province. He was 42. Kunchok’s self immolation took place in Tsangkor town in Gade (Chinese: Gande) county. Tibetans nearby managed to extinguish the flames. Kunchok was rushed to hospital, and was deeply distressed that he had survived, according to Tibetan sources. Although the self-immolation happened on September 16, news only reached Tibetans in exile yesterday (October 5) due to restrictions on information and tightened security in the area.
Most Recent Self-Immolations in Tibet, in 2019
The last Tibetan to die after setting himself on fire was YontenYonten, a 24-year-old former monk and nomad, who died November 28, 2019 after he carried out a protest in Ngaba County, the scene of numerous self-immolation protests since 2009 According to Free Tibet: “Free Tibet’s research partner, Tibet Watch, confirmed today that Yonten, 24, set himself on fire in Meruma Township. He died of his injuries on the same day.
“Meruma is a nomadic township. Yonten was previously a monk in nearby Kirti Monastery but later disrobed and settled as a nomad. The township has been the scene of numerous self-immolation protests over the past decade, most recently in March 2018, when Tsekho Tugchak died after setting himself on fire. Prior to that, on 23 December 2017, Kunbey, a 30-year-old monk living in Meruma Township, set himself on fire outside Kirti Monastery. Kunbey died of his injuries the following day. At least 42 self-immolation protests have been recorded in Ngaba County alone.
Image Sources: Tibet Uprising.org
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated July 2020