Defying a security clampdown, thousands of Tibetans gathered on Monday in a Tibetan region of China’s Qinghai province to honor a respected religious leader who died in a self-immolation protest against rule by Beijing.
The high-ranking lama, called Sopa and aged 42, set himself ablaze and died on Sunday in front of the police station of Darlag (in Chinese, Dari) county in the Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture after shouting slogans calling for freedom for Tibet.
The Chinese authorities at first refused to hand over Sopa’s body to his relatives but relented after hundreds of angry Tibetans smashed windows and doors of the local police station.
Sopa’s death came two days after two Tibetan monks set themselves on fire in Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) prefecture on Jan. 6 to protest Chinese rule and call for the return of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Sources confirmed Monday that both had died.
“Today, Jan. 9, a few thousand Tibetans from Darlag and Gade (in Chinese, Gande) counties gathered in Darlag town and prayed for the late Sopa Tulku,” said a Tibetan from the area, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Tulku" is a Tibetan honorific term denoting a reincarnate lama, called a "Living Buddha" by Chinese.
“The members of the [local] monasteries and elder members of the Tibetan community decided that the funeral rituals for the late Sopa Tulku, also called Sonam Wangyal, would be performed by Bhayen monastery in Darlag county,” the man said.
Sopa had founded a home for about 100 elderly Tibetans in Gade county and an orphanage in Darlag, the man said.
“Now, those orphans will have no one to look after them. Sopa Tulku’s death is a great loss for Tibet, and especially for Golog,” he added, before his call was cut off.
Sopa was born in Gade and was a respected high-ranking lama of Gade’s Dungkyob monastery, a second Tibetan source in the area said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
He is survived by a brother, the source said, adding that other details concerning his family are unknown.
Following Sopa's self-immolation, 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, sources said.
“Over 50 vehicles carrying [Chinese] security forces have now arrived in Darlag town,” one Tibetan source said.
“The town is full of armed police who are trying to intimidate the local Tibetans,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tibetan sources in exile identified the two monks who died on Jan. 6 as Tenyi and Tsultrim, both in their 20s.
“Tenyi died that day, and Tsultrim died during the night of Jan. 7,” said Kanyag Tsering and Lobsang Yeshi, monks at the Kirti branch monastery in Dharamsala, India.
Another monk, Norbu Damdul, who self-immolated on Oct. 15, died on Jan. 5 at a hospital in Barkham (in Chinese, Ma’erkang) county in China’s restive Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) county in Sichuan, they said.
Fifteen Tibetan monks and nuns have set fire to themselves since March 2011 to protest Beijing’s rule over Tibetan areas. A sixteenth, a monk named Tapey, set himself ablaze in 2009.
Chinese authorities have blamed the Dalai Lama for the fiery protests, accusing him of encouraging the self-immolations which, they say, run contrary to Buddhist teachings.
The Dalai Lama has denied the charge, blaming instead what he has called China’s “ruthless and illogical” policy toward Tibet.
Following the twin self-immolations on Friday, the Central Tibetan Administration, Tibet's exile government based in Dharamsala, India, highlighted “the Dalai Lama’s statement that as a Buddhist, life is precious and thus, he has always discouraged drastic actions inside and outside of Tibet, as he did during the peaceful protests in 2008 and several unto-death hunger strikes in exile.”
It added that the exile government does not encourage protests inside Tibet due to “harsh consequences in the hands of the Chinese authorities.”
“The People’s Republic of China government is solely to be blamed for these incidents of self-immolation. It must take full responsibility and immediately take measures to end these unfortunate incidents by adopting liberal policies for Tibet and [the] Tibetan people,” it said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said it is "seriously concerned" by reports of the latest three protest deaths.
"The U.S. government has consistently and directly raised with the Chinese government this issue of Tibetan self-immolations," State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland told reporters on Monday.
"These actions clearly represent enormous anger, enormous frustration, with regard to the severe restrictions on human rights, including religious freedom, inside China."
"We have called the Chinese government policies counterproductive, and have urged the Chinese government to have a productive dialogue, to loosen up in Tibet and allow journalists and diplomats and other observers to report accurately, and to respect the human rights of all their citizens," Nuland said.
Reported by Dolkar, Chakmo Tso, and Rigdhen Dolma for RFA’s Tibetan service. Translations by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Richard Finney.