Hundreds of angry Tibetans forced Chinese authorities on Sunday to return the body of a monk who self-immolated, parading the corpse in the streets in China's western Qinghai province, witnesses said.
Sopa, a respected 42-year-old monk, set himself on fire and died in front of the police station of Darlag (in Chinese, Dari) county in Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture after shouting slogans calling for Tibet's freedom and the long life of Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, they said.
It was the 15th Tibetan self-immolation since March last year, with Chinese security forces pouring into Darlag amid indications that thousands of Tibetans are planning to turn up for a memorial service this week for Sopa at a monastery where he had served.
Sopa, who ran a home for the elderly and an orphanage in Darlag, was a Rinpoche, an honorific used in Tibetan Buddhism for lamas and other high-ranking or respected teachers. He is believed to be the most senior monk to have self-immolated so far.
Before setting himself ablaze, he climbed a local hill, burned incense, prayed, and then distributed several leaflets in which he wrote that he was performing the deadly act "not for his personal glory but for Tibet and the happiness of Tibetans," a source from inside Tibet told RFA.
"The Tibetans should not lose their determination. The day of happiness will come for sure. For the Dalai Lama to live long, the Tibetans should not lose track of their path," Sopa wrote, according to the source.
Dressed in the yellow outer gown of an ordained monk, he set himself alight at around 6 a.m. after he "drank and threw kerosene all over his body."
"His body exploded in pieces [and the remains were] taken away by police," the source said.
Several hundred Tibetans marched to the police station to demand his remains, and when their request was denied, "the protesters smashed windows and doors of the local police station," another source said.
When the police finally relented and handed over Sopa's remains, the protesters paraded the body in the streets, sources said.
"Only the head and chest parts [of the body] are intact, the rest were in pieces when Tibetans received the remains from the police," a third source said.
Chinese authorities tightened security in Darlag, deploying additional security forces from the main town of Golog, as posters praising Sopa's act and calling for a boycott of Chinese goods appeared in the county.
"Sopa Rinpoche has done this act for the freedom and peace of Tibet," one poster said.
Sources said Tibetans planned to organized a large prayer session comprising about 2,000 people at Sopa's monastery.
"Now it's difficult to reach the Darlag area by phone," a source said.
Sopa's death came after two Tibetan monks set themselves on fire Friday in restive Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) prefecture in China's Sichuan province, protesting against Chinese rule and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.
The two from the troubled Kirti monastery, identified as Tenyi and Tsultrim, are believed to have died, a Tibetan said in an email to RFA, adding that the authorities have not handed over their bodies to their next of kin.
Rights groups say the unending self-immolations underscore the "desperate" situation facing Tibetans as Chinese authorities pursue a security clampdown.
“These latest self-immolations confirm that what we are currently witnessing in Tibet is a sustained and profound rejection of the Chinese occupation," Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden said, before the Darlag incident on Sunday.
“It is a damning indictment of the international community that 14 people, in different parts of Tibet, have now chosen to set themselves on fire, and the international community has failed to respond."
“We can only expect that such acts of protest will continue for as long as world leaders turn a blind eye to the desperate situation in Tibet," she said.
The latest self-immolations came as tens of thousands of Buddhist pilgrims from around the world traveled this week to Bodhgaya, a town in northern India, to hear the Dalai Lama give the "Kalachakra" religious teachings. Sopa had wanted to attend the event but the Chinese authorities refused to provide him a visa.
At least 9,000 Tibetans traveling on Chinese passports, along with an estimated 1,200 Chinese Buddhists from the mainland, are among those who have registered with event authorities.
Tensions in the Tibet Autonomous Region and in Tibetan-populated areas in China's provinces have not subsided since anti-China protests swept through the Tibetan Plateau in March 2008.
Chinese authorities have blamed the Dalai Lama for the tense situation, saying he is encouraging the self-immolations, which run contrary to Buddhist teachings.
But the Dalai Lama shot back, blaming China's "ruthless and illogical" policy toward Tibet.
He called on the Chinese government to change its "repressive" policies in Tibet, citing the crackdown on monasteries and policies curtailing the use of the Tibetan language.
Reported by Dolkar, Chakmo Tso and Taklha Gyal for RFA's Tibetan service. Translated by Karma Dorjee and Rigdhen Dolma. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai and Rachel Vandenbrink.