Tibet turmoil intensifies as Xi Jinping takes China's Reins

On Thursday, as the Chinese Communist Party unveiled its new leadership slate headed by Xi Jinping in Beijing, far across in the Himalayan plateau yet another disturbance engulfed the Tibet region, a twin self-immolation by teenagers in protest against Chinese rule of Tibet.

That brought the number of self-immolations to at least 74, of which 10 have taken place in just the last 15 days. They come at a time when the 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing was seeking to project an image of national unity. However, the suicides are an outcry by Tibetans living under Beijing’s authoritarian rule. The burnings signal increased instability in the region, as the suicides shout demands for religious freedom and the return of their spiritual leader the 14th Dalai Lama before they set themselves alight. Yet these remonstrations remain largely overlooked in the wider world.

The Chinese government and Tibetan exiles have been pointing fingers at each other over who bears the responsibility for the turmoil. As most of the self-immolations or mass protests occur inside Tibet, the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing and the Tibetan exile administration in Dharamsala, India, continue to issue statements blasting each other. Yet, for those inside Tibet these desperate self-immolations are becoming depressingly regular as a way of expressing resistance to Beijing’s hard-line policies.

Exiled Tibetans say the current Chinese regime denies Tibetan claims of suppression and indicts the exiles and the Dalai Lama of encouraging such acts. As well as the Chinese have flooded ethnic Tibetan areas with massive security forces and made lives of Tibetans nearly unbearable.

The Dalai Lama has expressed sadness over the incidents and recently asked the Chinese government for a thorough investigation to determine the causes of the self-immolations.

“The Chinese government should investigate the cause (of the incidents). China does not look into it seriously and tries to end (the incidents) only by criticizing me,” he told journalists in Tokyo on Nov. 13. "Chinese Communist propaganda creates a very rosy picture. But actually, including many Chinese from mainland China who visit Tibet, they all have the impression things are terrible, some kind of policy, some kind of cultural genocide is taking place.”

The Chinese government in turn immediately lashed out at the Dalai Lama, accusing him and other exiled Tibetans of instigating the escalating protests.

“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 regional government. “We welcome everybody to Tibet, but if people investigate issues like human rights, we don’t think that is appropriate,” he added.

The exchanges have only infuriated both sides, and any hope of negotiations appears remote. Despite Tibetan exiles’ frustration, they remain hopeful for dialogue, although Beijing closed its doors to talks ever since the 10th round failed in January 2010, after demanding changes in exiles’ policies.

Although the eyes of the world have focused on enviable economic advances in Beijing, the Tibetan burnings continue to tarnish Beijing’s image. The government faces widespread allegations of suppression leveled not only by Tibetan ethnic groups but by human rights organizations across the globe. In the wake of deteriorating conditions inside Tibet, the United Nations has also urged the Chinese government to allow independent agencies to monitors the situation and allow media access.

The UN senior human rights official Navi Pillay urged China on Nov. 2 in Geneva to address the deep-rooted frustrations that have led to the desperate forms of protest, which began in March 2011. In a press release, the United Nations human rights chief said she was disturbed by “continuing allegations of violence against Tibetans seeking to exercise their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, association and religion,” and pointed to “reports of detentions and disappearances, of excessive use of force against peaceful demonstrators, and curbs on the cultural rights of Tibetans.”

Beijing immediately delivered strong objections to any UN monitors and blasted the Rights panel for criticizing its handling of the protests in the Tibetan areas. According to the Chinese government, most Tibetans are happy and extensive economic development is improving their lives. On the sideline of the 18th Party Congress in Beijing, Liang Tiangeng, head of the organization department of the CPC Tibet autonomous region committee, said the local government would achieve its goal of building 400,000 homes for farmers and herdsmen by the end of this year, with more than 330,000 already been built, according to a report in the state-run China Daily. “The unemployment rate in Tibet is 2.69 per cent in urban areas, which is lower than in most cities nationwide,” Liang added.

Political analysts watching closely the self-immolations and China’s leadership transition believe the tussle between Beijing and Tibetan exiles is likely to continue, as will suicide attempts by Tibetans Tibet. It is extremely unlikely that the incoming leadership have any intention of risking their positions over Tibet.

“So long as China refuses to change its hardline policies and so long as Tibetans sense that they are at a most significant turn in their national history and they have no other option but to immolate and protest to make their voices heard, these will continue,” Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of international relations at the University of Westminster in the UK, told Asia Sentinel. “The Chinese government has given no indication of any change in its attitude that created this crisis in the first place. Given the preoccupation of the Communist Party with the leadership transition and the fact that it will be many months before the Politburo Standing Committee will be in a position to take any bold steps, Tibetans are likely to face more of the same. The deeply conservative makeup of the standing committee offers little hope for a more liberal policy involving accommodation with the Dalai Lama.”

The exiled Tibetans urgently called for an International Tibet Support Groups meeting from today to Nov. 18 to discuss the crisis and to explore ways to press the Chinese government to end its repressive policies.

Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile and the political successor of the Dalai Lama, expressed hope that the US President Barack Obama would engage with China on the Tibetan autonomy, as the president is to visit the Buddhist countries Cambodia and Thailand from Nov. 17.

“Mr. Obama should use his trip in part to make a broader point about the compatibility between Buddhism and democracy,” said Dr. Sangay, an op-ed article published in the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 14.

The self-immolations and the subject of Tibet’s instability remain a thorn in China’s side. Desperation is increasing among domestic Tibetans and with it the suicide movement. China remains obdurate. The tragic standoff continues.

(Saransh Sehgal can be reached at saranshsehgal@gmail.com.)