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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Resistance on Tibet Worries China

January 11, 2012

By BRIAN SPEGELE, Wall Street Journal
DAOFU, China—Shortly after Palden Choetso doused herself in gasoline, gulped several mouthfuls, and set herself ablaze in November, friends of the Tibetan nun found a list of names pinned above her bed in the small, wooden hut where she lived.
The 35-year-old nun at the Gaden Choeling nunnery was compiling a tally of Tibetans who had set themselves on fire, all in the same corner of western Sichuan province, in protest of China's policies in the region—adjacent to the Tibet Autonomous Region and heavily populated by ethnic Tibetans. Among the names was Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year-old monk at the local Nyitso monastery.
The self-immolations returned to the headlines this weekend as China's state-run Xinhua news agency reported Saturday that a former monk had died and another was injured after they set themselves on fire in Sichuan. Xinhua said the men were former monks from Kirti monastery, another center of Tibetan political activism that has come under siege from police in recent months.
Their acts bring the number of ethnic Tibetans known to have self-immolated in Sichuan since March to 13, at least seven of whom have died, according to accounts in Chinese state media and by international rights groups. Another Tibetan has also burned himself to death in Tibet itself.
On Sunday, a separate Xinhua article, which made no mention of the self-immolations, said that senior Tibet officials pledged stepped-up efforts to strengthen the management of monasteries, saying that promoting harmony in Tibet is a top priority because it concerns the stability of the nation.
The unprecedented wave of self-immolations represents a new challenge both to Chinese authorities—by drawing attention to dissent in the area—and to the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who doesn't want to be seen as encouraging such gestures.
The self-immolations come just as Beijing has launched a nationwide crackdown on religious activity in recent months, and is reminding Communist Party members they aren't allowed to worship. Religious experts say Buddhism and Christianity in particular have grown in popularity among party officials in recent years, a trend the government fears could one day subvert their faith in the party's supremacy. Most of the self-immolators are young, part of a new generation of Tibetans who revere the Dalai Lama but whose actions conflict with his advocacy of peaceful protests. The Dalai Lama does not condone suicide.
The Chinese government has long spurned direct contact with the Dalai Lama, despite the appeals of exiled Tibetans, some world leaders and even a few liberal Chinese scholars who believe he may be Beijing's best hope to help pacify the vast Tibetan regions of western China. The Dalai Lama is 76 years old: After him, many have warned, young Tibetans may be attracted by more extreme forms of protest.
Analysts say that rising desperation over government restrictions on religious activity is already pushing the resistance in a new direction.
In the town of Daofu, where Ms. Palden and Mr. Tsewang self-immolated, they have become martyrs to some. Their photographs are displayed in Daofu's mud-brick homes. A video circulating on the Internet shows Ms. Palden's body engulfed in flames, and as she struggles to stay upright, a young woman runs toward her and casts a white scarf at her feet in a gesture of respect.
Tibetans living in Sichuan face higher levels of detention than Tibetans in any other area, including Tibet itself, according to the U.S. government's Congressional-Executive Commission on China, set up to monitor human rights in China. In a December report, it said that since protests swept the Tibetan plateau in 2008 Beijing has stepped up its campaign against the Dalai Lama as well as measures that "intrude upon and micromanage Tibetan Buddhist monastic affairs," such as "legal-education" programs for monks and nuns.
Government officials in Daofu haven't responded to requests to comment on the self-immolations, or on events leading up to them. However, China's state-run media has repeatedly accused the Dalai Lama of inciting the acts.
"People are repulsed and angered by the masterminds, supporters and eulogists of the self-immolations, as they feel sad and sorry for the loss of young lives," wrote Zhang Yun, a researcher with the state-backed China Tibetology Research Center, in a commentary published last month by the state-run Xinhua news agency.
A thwarted birthday celebration for the Dalai Lama in July was a defining event in the final months of the lives of Ms. Palden and Mr. Tsewang, according to detailed accounts by several participants.
Just after 2 a.m. on July 6, monks and nuns from Daofu set off to climb a nearby hill as they had in years past to celebrate the Dalai Lama's birthday and other holidays. They hoped the darkness would shield them from police, but soon security forces surrounded the group and ordered them to turn back at gunpoint.
As punishment, local officials cut off water and electricity supplies to Nyitso monastery and electricity to Gaden Choeling convent, which has its own water supply.
Experts say the reported reprisals fit into a pattern. "We seem to be seeing new tactics toward certain monasteries in these areas," said Robert Barnett, an expert on modern Tibet at Columbia University in New York. "These seem to be control measures, stranglehold measures, to break resolve or spirit or collective force."
In pictures, Mr. Tsewang doesn't fit the stereotype of a Tibetan monk. He favored aviator sunglasses and had a considerable girth about him. "He loved the monastery. He loved Buddhism," said a Nyitso leader. "He didn't love China."
Mr. Tsewang set himself on fire in August. A woman on the third floor of a building along Daofu's main road shot photos of his death with her husband's cellphone, and keeps the memory card hidden in a jewelry box. The photos show Mr. Tsewang's charred body, his hand clasped as if in prayer.
Tibetan residents, armed with stones, formed a circle around his charred corpse and refused to let police take it away, according to Tibetans in Daofu. They later carried it up to Nyitso.
Several months after Mr. Tsewang's death, Ms. Palden asked for a few days sick leave from the nunnery to return home.
Her fellow nuns, who say Ms. Palden loved to sing and often serenaded them with Tibetan folk songs of the Dalai Lama's return to Tibet, describe how she had sunk into despondency. On the morning of Nov. 3, she asked her younger sister to go with her to the hospital. They caught a cab into town. Ms. Palden Choetso asked the driver to stop.
"Wait here a minute," she told her sister, according to the monks and nuns who knew Ms. Palden.
She walked along the town's main road and doused herself in gasoline, close to the spot where Mr. Tsewang took his life. "Long live the Dalai Lama," she screamed as flames towered over her head.
The immolations have again spurred calls for talks with Beijing by supporters of the Dalai Lama, who are struggling to find a way to keep the Tibetan movement unified after he passes away.
"It's important to meet and find ways and means to defuse the very tense situation inside Tibet," said Kelsang Gyaltsen, a senior official with the Tibetan government-in-exile. He was speaking during a visit by the Dalai Lama to Prague in December.
These younger "generations of Tibetans are much more politically conscious and assertive," he added. They are "much more inclined to express their resentment and genuine grievances through public protests."
High-tech surveillance equipment around the Nyitso monastery, a set of buildings surrounding a courtyard, highlights the constant presence of the Chinese state. Nyitso's leaders avoid stepping into the courtyard, instead huddling against its walls for privacy. "They can see us so clearly," said a Nyitso leader, gesturing across the street where police have erected a camera to spy on Nyitso's 250 monks. More cameras line the streets outside the monastery's gates, which Tibetans say were all installed after the 2008 protests.
Inside Nyitso's main gathering hall, photos of Mr. Tsewang and Ms. Palden are displayed in memorials. In the days following Ms. Palden's death, Gaden Choeling's nuns found her list of names on a piece of notepaper. At the bottom of the page, one of them added Ms. Palden's name and the date of her death. Then she pinned it back above the bed.
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