Tibetan monks charged in protest self-immolation; monasteries under siege

Authorities in China’s Sichuan province have charged three Tibetan monks with murder over the death of a fellow monk who set himself on fire in an apparent protest action. Two of the monks, Tsering Tenzin and Tenchum, are accused of plotting, instigating and assisting in the self-immolation of 16-year-old Rigzin Phuntsog on March 16. A third, Drongdru, is accused of moving and hiding the injured monk and preventing him from receiving emergency treatment for 11 hours, the official news agency Xinhua said. The trial will be held this week at the Maerkang County people’s court. The Ngaba Kirti monastery, where the self-immolation occurred, has been under tight control by security forces ever since. In June, Beijing rejected pressure from the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) to provide information about more than 300 of Kirti’s monks whose whereabouts remain unknown since a raid on the monastery in April. (AP, VOA, Aug. 26; Tibet Society, June 15)

In the nearby Ganzi (Tibetan: Kardze) region of Sichuan province, telephone and Internet access was cut off after a similar incident on Aug. 15. Rights groups say 29-year-old monk Tsewang Norbu drank gasoline and poured it over himself after shouting slogans and distributing leaflets calling for the return of the Dalai Lama—and then set himself on fire. Exile groups said soldiers intervened when monks at the local Nyitso monastery tried to carry the body to the compound for religious rituals. The monastery was subsequently surrounded by some 1,000 police backed up with armored vehicles. (VOA, Aug. 18; NYT, Phayul, Aug. 23; International Campaign for Tibet, Aug. 16)

Beijing tilts to softer line?
On Aug. 25, Beijing replaced Zhang Qingli, a notorious hardliner, as Party Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), the region’s highest ranking official. The CPC Central Committee announced the appointment of Chen Quanguo to the seat. Zhang had held the position since May 2006, overseeing the harsh repression after the 2008 uprising. He habitually called the Dalai Lama a “wolf in monk’s robe,” and blamed the “Dalai clique” for inciting unrest in the region. He was transferred to Tibet after overseeing the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonmous Region, another restive territory of western China. Chen, in contrast, has no experience in China’s “minority” areas or distinguishing career highlights to suggest a similarly zealous bent. Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “Tibetans are sure to welcome the departure of Zhang Qingli whose slurs and histrionics made him a divisive force in the TAR. Chen Quanguo has an opportunity to set a more measured tone in the TAR, even if no policy shift is signalled by his appointment.” (ICT, Aug. 25; TCHRD, Aug. 26)

Exile government reciprocates?
Interestingly, Zhang’s replacement comes just as the Tibetan exile parliament in Dharamsala, India, voted formally changed the name of the “Tibetan Government in Exile” to the “Organization of the Tibetan People.” The move was protested by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) as an implicit retreat from the demand for full self-determination. TYC president Tsewang Rigzin said in statement: “We are refugees and we have to continue our struggle under the banner of Tibetan government-in-exile. The very nomenclature Tibetan government-in-exile bears both our identity and binds us together for struggle for independence. The new nomenclature Organization of the Tibetan People is rather confusing.”

Rigzin made clear his differences with the Dalai Lama, who recently stepped down as leader of the exile administration. “[W]e still adhere to our stand which is complete independence for Tibet,” he said. “We do not subscribe to the ‘Autonomy for Tibet theory’ of HH Dalai Lama. Once Tibet is freed from the forceful Chinese occupation, even HH the Dalai Lama along with all the Tibetan refugees can return back to Tibet.”

Rigzin issued the statements at a TYC assembly in Darjeeling, West Bengal. TYC activist Tenzin Tsundue explained that Darjeeling had been chosen for its historical significance: “His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama stayed for two years in exile between 1910 to 1912 in Darjeeling. He later returned to Tibet and subsequently declared the Independence of Tibet in 1913. This has a great symbolic significance. We are all very happy to be here meeting many Tibetans who have been living here even before the Chinese invasion of Tibet and all this exile phenomena happened. Darjeeling had always been the capital of Tibetans living in India for centuries. Tibetans have always shared a deep bonding with the people of Darjeeling and nearby mountain regions.” (Hindustan Times, Aug. 28)

The 13th Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, fled to India when China sent an invasion force to Tibet in early 1910, after the Manchu rulers had rebuffed his petitions for greater autonomy, having recently established greater sway over what had long been a de facto independent nation amid concerns about growing British and Russian interests in the region. He returned to Tibet two years later, after the Manchu dynasty had been overthrown, and re-established the territory’s effective independence. (Dalai Lama website; A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, p. 61-4)

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  1. Tibetan self-immolations spark protests in Delhi
    Police in New Delhi detained 13 members of the Tibetan Youth Congress protesting outside the Chinese embassy on Oct. 9. The demonstration was organized in solidarity following recent self-immolation protests by Tibetans against the Chinese government. Five Tibetans have set themselves on fire in southwest China’s Sichuan province in the past two weeks. Most recently, two young former monks at Kirti monastery set themselves on fire in the center of the market town Aba (Tibetan: Ngaba) on Oct. 7. (UPI, Oct. 10; AP, Oct. 9)

  2. Dalai Lama speaks out on Tibetan self-immolations
    The Dalai Lama has blamed China’s “ruthless and illogical” policy towards Tibet for the recent deaths of monks who set themselves on fire in protest against Beijing’s rule. At least nine Tibetan clerics or former clerics have self-immolated in south-western China over seven months in protest against Chinese rule. Five of them have died of their injuries. Earlier this month a nun became the most recent casualty and the first woman to die. The practice was unknown among clerics until two years ago, when one monk burnt himself to death in Sichuan province’s Aba county, the predominantly Tibetan area in which most of the deaths have taken place. Amnesty International has said the spate of self-immolations “indicates a new level of desperation” on the part of Tibetans. (The Guardian, Oct. 29)

      1. Tibetans and conspiracy theorists
        Jenny, we really appreciate the fact that you pay attention to our efforts, but we hope you don’t take the conspiranoid websites you link to seriously. Please read our Posting Policy.

        What is the point of this exercise? The fact that the Dalai Lama gets money from the NED means Tibetans aren’t entitled to human rights?


  3. UN concerned with restrictions on Tibet
    UN experts expressed concerns Nov. 1 over human rights restrictions on Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in China’s Sichuan province. UN experts are concerned about reports of heavy security measures surrounding the Kirti monastery, which houses approximately 2,500 Buddhist monks. UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt stated:

    Intimidation of the lay and monastic community must be avoided, and the right of members of the monastic community and the wider community to freely practice their religion, should be fully respected by the Chinese Government. Restrictive measures not only curtail the right to freedom of religion or belief, but further exacerbate the existing tensions and are counterproductive.

    These statement cited use of police in riot gear, soldiers with automatic rifles, and surveillance within monasteries. UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression Frank La Rue voiced his concern over claims of restricted internet access and mobile service as well as the lack of access for journalists to the area. La Rue recommended that the Chinese government “listen to and address the legitimate grievances of the monastic community” instead of taking reported security measures.

    China’s rights record on Tibet has been widely criticized. In June, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, another party to this week’s statement, urged China to address its practice of “enforced disappearances” and reveal the location of 355 detained Tibetan monks. (Jurist, Nov. 1)