A high-ranking Tibetan religious figure and his niece, a nun, have died in a house fire apparently set when they tried to light butter lamps in honor of Tibetans who died in self-immolation protests against Chinese rule, local sources said.
The two died last month at a monastery in the Minyag region of Tawu county in Sichuan’s Kardze (in Chinese, Ganzi) prefecture, a Tibetan resident of the area told RFA's Tibetan service yesterday, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source quoted a monastery administrator as saying that Tulku Athub and his niece Atse died in an accidental fire, but said the local Tibetan community believes they may have self-immolated “for the cause of Tibet.”
RFA could not independently confirm the circumstances under which they died.
“At around 10:30 a.m. on April 6, the residence of Tulku Athub and his niece Atse, located next to Dragkar monastery in Kham Minyag, caught fire, and about 10 minutes later they were found dead inside the residence,” the source said.
“This information was not released until today,” he added.
Tulku Athub, also known as Thubten Nyendak Rinpoche, was a former abbot of Dzogchen monastery—the site of recent Tibetan protests—and was the head of the Minyag Lhakang Dragkar monastery at the time of his death, the source said.
He was known as a strong advocate of Tibetan culture and religion and of unity among Tibetans, the source said, adding that Atse, his 23-year-old niece, was also well known for her strong concern for the welfare of Tibet.
Family told of plans
Several days before the fire, the source said, Tulku Athub told family members that he planned to set out butter lamps as traditional offerings in a prayer service honoring Tibetan self-immolators and asked them to buy large quantities of butter and bring them to his home.
“On April 6, Tulku Athub told his family in a phone call that ‘I have lighted many butter lamps for the benefit of those who have set themselves on fire for the cause of Tibet,’” the source said.
“Soon afterward, the residence was seen ablaze, and the Tulku and his niece were both found dead.”
Separately, a Tibetan source in Dzogchen town confirmed the incident, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
When police arrived at the scene, the first source said, a monastery administrator, fearing the monastery would be closed, told police that the fire had been an accident and had nothing to do with protests related to Tibet.
“Convinced by the explanation, the police withdrew from the monastery. However, many within the local Tibetan community believe that Tulku Athub and his niece self-immolated for the cause of Tibet.”
Sichuan’s Kardze prefecture has been the scene of repeated protests in recent months by Tibetans challenging rule by Beijing, including many of the 35 self-immolation protests reported in Tibetan regions since February 2009.
These have resulted in a major security crackdown in the province and in two other Tibetan-populated Chinese provinces, Qinghai and Gansu, as well as in the Tibet Autonomous Region.
Reported by Chakmo Tso for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Dhondup Gonsar. Written in English by Richard Finney.