Tibet Unrest Gains Momentum

On Saturday, Feb. 12 an 18-year-old nun named Tenzin Choedron from the Mamae Dechen Choekhorling nunnery set herself afire in China's Sichuan province, shouting protest slogans against the Chinese government before setting herself alight, an exile based rights group said.

With nearly two dozen self-immolations and a series of mass protests in the Himalayan plateau region inside China over the past months, there is growing concern over the possibility of an uprising equivalent to the one that shook Sichuan and Gansu in 2008 when deadly rioting in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, extended to areas in neighboring provinces. As the tension has grown, China is said to be rushing additional security personnel to the region.

“We worry that more cases of immolation may occur in the coming days as our new year is approaching and the 10th March national uprising day as well, ” said Tsering Tashi, an exiled Tibetan and a member of the Students for a Free Tibet (SFT) group in New Delhi. ”We need the collective voices of the people and leaders of world that can save the lives of the Tibetan people.”

Tenzin Choedron joins 20 other Tibetan Buddhists, mostly monks and nuns and a few lay Tibetans, who have immolated themselves to protest Beijing’s policies in areas like the Ngaba prefecture of China’s Sichuan Province. Before lighting themselves on fire they chanted for Tibetan freedom and the return of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled to India during a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. Chinese state media has however described the protests as mob attacks and riots fomented by the exiled leader’s followers.

In a recent press briefing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said, "We believe that this is a case of a handful of criminals illegally gathering and smashing and looting." He added that the “surprising” promptness with which overseas Tibetan activist groups reported the unrest “showed that they have colluded and premeditated the incidents. The Chinese government will resolutely crack down on any attempt to incite violence or to disrupt national unity and integrity.”

Sichuan has also seen bloody clashes between Tibetan and Chinese forces in recent weeks, partly because of the massive influx of Han Chinese into Tibetan -populated areas.

The Chinese government says it is trying to maintain the Tibetan culture and regularly highlights improved living conditions. In an attempt to calm the situation, the Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao met recently with Gyaltsen Norbu, the Panchen Lama installed by Beijing, pledging “greater” religious freedom and cultural protection in Tibet. "We will place more importance on improving the lives of our Tibetan compatriots, on protecting the... traditions of Tibet... and in preserving the freedom of religious belief of Tibetans," Wen was quoted by Chinese state-owned media.

The Tibet Autonomous Region has earmarked more than 8 billion yuan (US$1.3 billion) for this year to improve the living conditions of farmers and herdsmen in the region. The fund, 68.4 percent bigger than last year's, is to be used for rural infrastructure construction and as agricultural subsidies for Tibetans, according to a statement released by the region's financial department reported in State media.

However, that has done little to quell the unrest. Tenzin Choedron’s suicide occurred only two days after a 19-year-old former monk, Rigzin Dorje from the local Kirti monastery in Aba prefecture of Sichuan, set himself afire. Reports surfaced within the exile community that Rigzin was taken away from the protest site by Chinese security personnel to an undisclosed location. The self-immolation coincided with a call by Tibetan exiles for a worldwide vigil against what they called China's growing cruelty and military build-up in Tibet.

Despite Wen’s conciliatory statement, analysts believe Beijing is giving any relief to Tibetans and that a further clampdown risks more unrest. Dibyesh Anand, an associate professor of International Relations at London's University of Westminster told Asia Sentinel, “The Chinese government has refused to address a single Tibetan concern. In fact, it is hinting toward more hardline policing of dissent. This is a recipe for further aggravation of the cycle of repression and protest.”

“Beijing has made it clear that it has no intention to revisit any of its policies. In fact, there is no evidence of self-reflection on the part of the Chinese government. The overwhelming emphasis is on more of the same - more surveillance, more militarized security, more denunciation of all protestors as separatists, more blaming of the Dalai Lama. This cycle of repression and protest will contribute to a more confrontationist’s Sino-Tibetan politics and make compromises and accommodations more unlikely,” he added.

In Dharamsala, the headquarters of the exiled Tibetan administration and home to the Dalai Lama, more than 1,000 Tibetans united for an afternoon prayer and later led a candlelight vigil. During the event Dr. Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the self-declared exile government, said: "Tibetans inside Tibet are giving up their lives. They're saying, 'I choose to die.' If the Chinese government thinks the Tibet issue can be solved through violence, intimidation, then it's not going to happen, because the Tibetan spirit is strong."

Regardless of appeals by several countries for a softer stand, the Chinese have called for increased security and told officials to be on the alert for further protest. Certainly Beijing is not taking any chances. China on Feb. 7 warned government officials in Tibet that failing to maintain stability could result in job loss or criminal prosecution. In an announcement it said “those responsible for problems in stability maintenance because they neglect their posts act irresponsibly, abuse power or fail to carry out their duties ... will all be removed from their positions on the spot no matter who they are or what level they are at.”

Although the Dalai Lama has maintained a public silence, Tibet’s third top monk, the exiled 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who also resides in Dharamsala, urged Beijing to confess the human distress of Tibetans and take full responsibility.

“It would lay a wise basis for building mutual trust between Tibetans and the Chinese government,” said the 26-year-old spiritual leader. A statement issued by his office on Feb. 6 said: “As tensions escalate, instead of showing concern and trying to understand the causes of the situation, the Chinese authorities respond with increasing force and oppression. I pray that these sacrifices have not been in vain, but will yield a change in policy that will bring our Tibetan brothers and sisters’ relief.”

Exiles say convoys of Chinese security forces have been seen moving toward Tibet in recent days as the Tibetan New Year approaches on Feb. 22 as well as the Mar. 10 anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising. Exiles fear a Chinese security forces crackdown might result in more lives lost.

The self-immolations, however, may well be a signal to other Tibetans.

“The representation of the recent self-immolations in Tibet as acts of hopeless desperation directed at an uncaring world is wide of the mark,” said Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University in the United States. “It is clear that these acts resonate internally and seem directed at other Tibetans. Those committing self-immolation make appeals to other Tibetans for unity and for a free or independent Tibet. China has responded by ramping up security in many places across the Tibetan Plateau. The Chinese authorities are shifting the responsibility to local officials who risk punishment if they don’t sufficiently suppress protests in their areas. This is likely a formula for repressive overkill on the part of local authorities who fear the consequences should serious protests break out in their areas. China is well aware that this is the tense period that leads up to March 10, the day on which Tibetans commemorate the outbreak in Lhasa of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule.”

While the separatist acts continue, the only message they send is the unrest that Beijing will have to counter post the Dalai Lama - as things could worsen rapidly and China's rule over the vast Himalayan plateau. Curbing religious freedoms and eroding Tibetan culture and language may well make Tibetans erupt again, something the world does not wish to see.

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