A Vietnamese woman belonging to an outlawed Buddhist movement died Friday after setting herself on fire in protest against China's actions in a territorial dispute with Vietnam, according to activists and local media.
The woman, 67-year-old Le Thi Tuyet Mai, surrounded herself with seven banners denouncing Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea before dousing herself in gasoline and setting it alight early Friday morning in front of the Reunification Palace in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Police told Vietnamese media they put out the blaze within three minutes but she succumbed to her burns.
The burning protest follows a clampdown on demonstrations against China's May 1 deployment of a giant oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam.
The exile-based International Buddhist Information Bureau said Mai was an executive member of the Buddhist Youth Movement, part of the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), which is banned in the country.
The banners found next to her body displayed handwritten slogans expressing opposition to Chinese incursions into Vietnamese waters and support for the UBCV patriarch Thich Quang Do’s stance on the issue, the IBIB said.
Last week, the IBIB issued a statement saying Do was “disturbed” by China’s deployment of the oil rig off the coast of central Vietnam and wanted the Vietnamese government and the ruling Communist Party “to embark on a process of democratization to enable its citizens to participate equally in the defense of their homeland.”
“I offer my body as a torch to light the path of all patriots,” one of the banners displayed by Mai read, according to the group.
'Combination' of problems
Le Truong Hai Hieu, vice chairman of Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 government, told reporters that police believe the self-immolation was inspired by a combination of serious life problems and anger created by China's deployment of the oil rig, local newspaper Thanh Nien reported.
Mai’s son Tran Le Truong, 45, said she had no history of mental illness, the paper said.
A local blogger in Ho Chi Minh City who went to the site of the blaze after reading about Mai’s self-immolation in a report on social media said the area had been thoroughly cleaned hours after the incident.
“I went to the site at noon but it was already cleaned, with nothing much left,” Hoang Van Dung told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“I have a feeling that they wanted to cover this up because they cleaned this area so fast so nobody could see anything,” he said.
Several local media outlets reported the self-immolation but the first to do so, An Ninh Thu Do, took down its article hours after posting it.
China’s deployment of the oil rig in contested waters near the Paracel Islands has triggered fury in Vietnam.
Hanoi had initially lauded "patriotic" displays by its citizens and allowed protests by thousands in a rare move that amplified state anger against Beijing.
But it backpedalled after the protests turned violent last week, with rioters targeting factories in industrial parks around the country.
Some dissidents and activists who took part in peaceful protests reported they were brutally beaten and harassed by police.
Reported by RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.