Five Tibetans, including a young mother and three teenage boys, set fire to themselves on Wednesday in protest against Chinese rule in the largest number of self-immolations in a single day, triggering massive demonstrations in at least one area, according to exile and local sources.
The burnings—which raised the self-immolation toll to 68 so far—came ahead of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's highly anticipated Congress beginning Thursday, which is expected to endorse Vice President Xi Jinping as successor to President Hu Jintao in a once-a-decade leadership transition.
At least two of the self-immolators have died.
Three of the self-immolations occurred in Sichuan province's Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) prefecture and one each in Qinghai province’s Malho (Huangnan) prefecture and in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the sources said.
The three boys—monks Dorje, 15, Samdrub, 16, and Dorje Kyab, 16—set themselves ablaze in front of a police station in Ngaba town, calling for a free Tibet and the return of Tibet's spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, according to monks Lobsang Yeshi and Kanyag Tsering, who live in India's hill town of Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile.
“The three self-immolated in front of the Ngatoe Gomang police station in the evening at around 3:00 p.m.," Lobsang Yeshi said, citing local sources.
"Dorje, who died at the scene, Samdrub, and Dorje Kyab are monks from the Ngoshul monastery," Lobsang Yeshi said.
"Samdrub and Dorje Kyab have been taken to the Ngaba county hospital. Now there is a severe security clampdown restricting any movement in the streets," he said.
In the Malho prefecture, a 23-year-old Tibetan mother of a young son set fire to herself and died in the Gemar market area of Rebgong (in Chinese, Tongren) county, drawing several thousand Tibetans to the streets in a protest against Chinese rule.
Tamdrin Tso set herself ablaze at about 6:00 p.m. and died shouting slogans calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, local sources said.
Tamdrin Tso came originally from the Dro Rongwo township of Rebgong county, sources said. She leaves behind a son, Nyingjam Tsering, aged 5 or 6, and her father, Tamdrin Kyab, and mother, Konchog Tso.
“Over the last 15 days, Tamdrin Tso had performed prayers for other self-immolation protesters in Tibet, and today she set herself on fire,” Dorje Wangchuk, director of the Literary and Culture Research Centre of the Norbulingka Institute in Dharamsala, citing sources in the region.
Following the burning, around 3,000 local Tibetans gathered in the Gemar market area, a central location with a school and many shops, and shouted slogans calling for freedom for Tibet, sources said.
Tamdrin Tso’s self-immolation was the second to occur in the Rebgong area this week.
On Nov. 4, Tibetan artist Dorjee Lhundrub, 25, set himself ablaze and shouted slogans against Chinese rule and calling for the Dalai Lama’s return as he burned to death.
A large crowd of local monks and township residents then gathered at the site, with many placing traditional Tibetan scarves on Lhundrub’s charred remains as a mark of respect for the father of two, sources said.
Wednesday's fifth self-immolation occurred in Bekhar township in Driru county, Nagchu prefecture, of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
“I learned about the self-immolation at 8:00 p.m., as it happened, while I was speaking on the phone," said a Tibetan monk living in South India, citing contacts in the region.
"There was a lot of commotion, and there were shouts at the scene by the Tibetans. The Chinese security forces arrived immediately, but details, such as the name of the self-immolator, remain unknown,” the monk said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Tibetan self-immolation protests have intensified in recent weeks and may have entered a new phase, some analysts have said.
And the failure to contain the fiery protests, the analysts say, poses a major challenge to Beijing, which has offered cash rewards to Tibetans to inform on potential self-immolators and has tightened security restrictions on Tibetan monasteries and towns.
The burnings continue despite calls to end them by a special meeting of Tibetan exile groups convened in Dharamsala on the advice of the Dalai Lama.
'No meaningful response'
Sophie Richardson, China Director for Human Rights Watch, described the self-immolation protests as "extraordinary acts of desperation."
"And they continue because there is no meaningful response from the central government, which has the ability to change the situation for the better."
"It has to be profoundly unnerving to [China's] leadership that not only has this continued for as long as it has, but that you see different age groups, you see religious figures, you see people from urban areas and rural areas, men and women, young and old," Richardson said.
"The number and scope of cases suggest that this is a more thoroughgoing statement or expression of despair than the Chinese government would have you believe it is."
Reported by Chakmo Tso for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translated by Dorjee Damdul and Rigdhen Dolma. Written in English by Richard Finney and Parameswaran Ponnudurai.