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'Burning martyrs': the wave of Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire

November 16, 2011

Monks and nuns say leaflets are circulating in monasteries in China listing names of those ready to carry out suicide protests
Jason Burke in Delhi and Tania Branigan in Beijing,
Thursday 10 November 2011 18.35 GMT

On the posters, they call them "the burning martyrs". Above photographs of the 11 Tibetan monks, former monks and nuns who have set fire to themselves this year in an unprecedented series of demonstrations in Sichuan, south-west China, the question asked is: "How many more?"

Their images line the streets of Dharamsala, the Indian Himalayan foothill town which is a refuge to the Tibetan community in exile. And with seven suicide protests in the last four weeks alone, the question is ever more urgent. Most of those who have set themselves on fire have died.

On Thursday monks who have recently made the perilous journey across the Himalayas to exile in India claimed leaflets were circulating in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China listing the names of scores of young people ready to publicly burn themselves alive to protest against Chinese policies .

Senior monks from the Kirti monastery in Aba county, the centre of the protests so far, told the Guardian that they feared it was inevitable many more would die over the coming months.

"I am 100% sure there will be more. The situation is suffocating and there is no other way to demonstrate anger," said Kanyang Tsering, 32, a monk from Kirti living in Dharamsala.

Tsering said the towns and villages surrounding Kirti monastery were under heavy security. "There are more soldiers and police than people. All over Tibet this is happening but in Kirti it is particularly bad."

Kirti is not in the official Tibetan Autonomous Region, but exiles claim several Tibetan-dominated areas of south-west China as Tibet.

Film of the area taken by journalists from the AFP news agency last month showed a heavy presence of Chinese security authorities with patrols equipped with fire extinguishers to stop further attempts at self-immolation.

Until two years ago, when a monk burned himself to death in Aba county, the practice was unknown among Tibetan clerics. But since the start of a security clampdown provoked by the second case, in March this year, there has been a series of such suicide protests. Analysts have observed that they have taken place in locations that saw significant violence during unrest in March 2008.

Tibetan sources in Dharamsala also said two monks had been arrested in Kirti monastery in the last week and "taken away for unknown reasons". Out of 2,500 monks at the start of the year, only a few hundred remained in the monastery, the sources said, with many reportedly detained or sent home.

The sources also claimed that 200 officials were now based in the monastery, monitoring life there and interfering with day-to-day religious practices.

They said officials had renewed efforts to enforce rules that all under-18s must attend the government school, threatening families with fines of 3,000 yuan (about £300) per child – a large sum relative to local incomes – if their children had become monks or were studying at monastery schools.

Police and government officials in Aba said they knew nothing of the detentions or other restrictions. The Chinese government has said Tibetans are free to practise their faith.

The self-immolations are, however, controversial even among Tibetans.

One long-term Tibetan resident of Dharamsala said that the "emotional reaction" of the community was "oh no, not another one" whenever news broke of a further suicide, even if "people understand why they are doing it".

The Karmapa Lama, one of the most senior Tibetan religious figures, has urged Tibetans in China to find other ways to challenge Beijing's policies.

Many see the 25-year-old Karmapa Lama, who is based near Dharamsala, as a possible successor to the Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of exiled Tibetans.

"These desperate acts … are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live. But I request the people of Tibet to preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet," he said.

"In Buddhist teaching life is precious. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives."

His position differs, however, from that taken by the Dalai Lama himself, who – though he has expressed deep sorrow at the deaths, which he blamed on Chinese policies – has not appealed to Tibetans to halt such acts. Tsering, the Kirti monk in Dharamsala, said that the act of suicide was shocking to most Buddhists but was justified by the "motivations" of those killing themselves. "They are doing it for the good of all people in the region, nothing else," he said.

The Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama of "terrorism in disguise" because he has led prayers for those who have set fire to themselves.

The Karmapa Lama said that "Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet".

The real source of the problem lay in the "desperate circumstances" facing Tibetans, and using force was counter-productive, he said.

Professor Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibet at the University of Columbia, said that China had seen other self-immolations, often in property disputes, without the kind of security clampdown that followed this year's first death.

The reaction was "presumably because of the potential for even one Tibetan case to resonate with the entire [Tibetan] population", he said.

"For several years the authorities have been piling pressure on the monastery – and on monasteries in general. It is not just that officials were over-zealous after March. This is the state reaping rewards for years of policy … [It may be] that officials are going further than Beijing expects, but that this is working on top of what is already a volcano."

A foreign ministry official accused the Dalai Lama last month of inciting further cases by glorifying those who had set themselves on fire. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of seeking to split Tibet from China, while he says he seeks meaningful autonomy.

The tight restrictions on the area mean that it is impossible to know exactly what has driven the Tibetans to kill themselves. In some cases witnesses reported them chanting slogans demanding an end to Chinese rule, however, and according to the friend of a monk who killed himself in March, the aim of the demonstrations is "to attract international attention to [the] struggle".

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