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Study Points to Heavy-Handed Repression of Tibetan Area in China

October 21, 2011

BEIJING — The rise in anti-Chinese tensions and protests in a restive Tibetan region of Sichuan Province, including a startling wave of monk self-immolations, has taken place in the aftermath of sharp increases in the security budget for the area, which indicates the conflict is partly a result of heavy-handed tactics by the local security forces, according to an assessment by Human Rights Watch.

The Tibetan region, Aba prefecture, has been in the spotlight recently because six of seven self-immolations by monks in Sichuan this year have taken place there, in or around the Kirti Monastery. The monks all set themselves on fire to protest what Tibetan advocacy groups have called harsh Chinese policies.

The latest self-immolations took place on Oct. 7, when two teenagers described as former monks set themselves on fire. One of them, Choepel, 19, later died, according to an account of the incident by Free Tibet, a rights group in London.

The expenditures on security-related activity in Aba, known as Ngaba in Tibetan, have been growing since 2002, Human Rights Watch said in its assessment, released Tuesday. Citing official statistics it had examined, the group said that from 2002 to 2006, the public security spending in Aba was three times the average for non-Tibetan parts of Sichuan. That went up to 4.5 times in 2006. In 2007, a new “anti-terrorist” unit was established in Aba, and it took part in a “strike hard” campaign.

Significant unrest did not afflict the area until the spring of 2008, when many Tibetans across the plateau, including in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, took to the streets to protest Chinese rule.

“These findings suggest that the increase in government spending on security has contributed to provocative policing techniques such as monastery blockades and the mass detentions of monks that have repeatedly contributed to local discontent and unrest,” Human Rights Watch said.

At least 10 Tibetans were shot dead in Aba by security forces during the 2008 uprising, advocacy groups have said. After the unrest, spending on security rose again. By 2009, per-capita spending on security in Aba was 779 renminbi, or $120, five times the average in non-Tibetan areas of Sichuan and twice as much as in Chengdu, the provincial capital, the Human Rights Watch report said. The new measures taken included surrounding monasteries with security forces, raiding monasteries in the middle of the night and detaining monks en masse.

On April 12, about 300 monks were taken from Kirti for weeks of “patriotic re-education,” Human Rights Watch said, and many have not returned. It estimated about 2,000 fewer monks now live at Kirti compared to the total number in March.

The first self-immolation at Kirti took place on March 16, by a 20-year-old monk named Phuntsog. He was the first monk to kill himself by self-immolation to protest Chinese rule in Tibet, according to historians.

In August, Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year-old monk at Nyitso Monastery in Ganzi, another Tibetan region of Sichuan, also committed suicide by setting himself on fire. Like in Aba, the security budget of Ganzi, known in Tibetan as Karze, also increased sharply after 2002, Human Rights Watch said. In total, at least four Tibetans have killed themselves through self-immolation this year, all monks in Sichuan.

China seized control of Tibet in the 1950s and considers the former kingdom an inseparable part of the country. The Chinese authorities forced Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to flee into exile in 1959 and have no tolerance for Tibetan separatist sentiment in Tibet or adjoining provinces populated by ethnic Tibetans.

On Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry responded to the spate of self-immolations, condemning what it called the “Dalai clique” for publicizing them as a way to inspire more Tibetans to kill themselves in this way.

“They publicly played it up, spread rumors and incited more people to follow suit,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Liu Weimin, told reporters at a daily news briefing in Beijing. He also called the self-immolations part of a separatist plot against Chinese rule in Tibet.

On Wednesday, the parliament and the cabinet of the Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamsala, India, released a statement expressing deep concern over what it called the deteriorating situation in Tibet. The statement said: “We express our solidarity with all those who lost their lives and with all other Tibetans who are incarcerated for their courage to speak up for the rights of the Tibetan people.”

A new prime minister, Lobsang Sangay, formerly a research fellow at Harvard Law School, recently took charge of the exile government after being elected to his post. The Dalai Lama, 76, has said he is ceding all political power to the government.

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