22 Mar 2012

Why are Tibetans burning themselves to death?

Growing numbers of Tibetans are resorting to setting themselves alight to protest against the Chinese government’s repression of their homeland. Channel 4 News examines why.

In towns and villages across swathes of south western China, dozens have been following the example of Tabe, a monk from the Kirti Monastery who set himself alight in 2009 in a striking and desperate gesture of direct action.

The latest report of self-immolation is of Sonam Dargye, a 44-year-old farmer and father of three who fastened cotton padding to his body with iron wire and doused himself with kerosene before setting himself on fire near Rongwo town centre, the capital of Rebkong County in eastern Tibet. He also drank kerosene, according to US broadcaster Radio Free Asia, which made it nearly impossible for the Tibetans surrounding him to put the flames out before he was killed.

It has been reported that nearly 30 Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past year to protest against the suppression of their religion and culture. At least 20 have died, amid desperate calls for the Chinese authorities to allow the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled into exile in 1959.

But in decades of demands for the end of the Chinese government’s repression of Tibet, self-immolation is unprecedented, according to activists, and the recent unrest is the worst witnessed in the mountainous region since 2008. Originating in religious orders, self-immolation has now spread to mothers, farmers, and teenagers.


The Chinese authorities have been set on edge by the increasing frequency of self-immolation – seven have taken place in the past month alone. They have resorted to fighting fire with fire, according to activists, branding people who set themselves alight “terrorists”.

They claim they treat minority groups fairly, and say they spend tens of billions of dollars on improving living conditions in their areas.

Activists say that towns in western Sichuan province are under a de facto martial law, as the Chinese government ups its ante against demonstrators with military raids on homes and arbitrary detentions.

Earlier this month, a young Tibetan man was reported to have died and two others were apparently injured in a shooting at a police station in the Golog Tibetan autonomous prefecture in Qinghai, western China, according to Free Tibet. The three had gone to complain about the arrest of another man for taking part in a mass protest in January.

Chinese authorities detained about 100 people during clashes in Ganzi prefecture, known in Tibetan as Kandze, in January.

Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, has criticised the Tibetan government-in-exile, based in India, and the Dalai Lama for “causing disaffection among Tibetans towards their motherland”.

“The [purpose of the] so-called Tibetan government-in-exile in India’s Dharamsala… is to separate Tibet and other Tibetan areas from the motherland,” he said.

International community

The London-based Free Tibet organisation has suggested rumours are spreading that if 200 Tibetans set themselves on fire, this will trigger a response from the United Nations.

“Tibetans are feeling they have nothing to lose now,” the organisation’s director, Stephanie Brigden, told Channel 4 News. “So they are now giving their lives. If a Tibetan is arrested, as the UN has said, it is likely they will be tortured. If that happens, and if they are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, then it means they can be thrown out of the monastery.”

The acts are one form of protest among others, including demonstrations, which have turned violent amid reports of Chinese authorities opening fire on unarmed protesters.

China rejects criticism that it is eroding Tibetan culture and faith, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought development to a backward region.