The fatal self-immolation protest Wednesday of a Tibetan man living in western China’s Sichuan province was preceded by weeks of police harassment and intimidation of the residents of a Tibetan-populated county, according to sources in the region and in exile.
Tenzin Gyatso, 35, died after setting himself ablaze at around 8:00 p.m. on May 20 in the Khangsar township of Tawu (in Chinese, Daofu) county in the Kardze (Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, local sources told RFA.
Gyatso’s action challenging Beijing’s rule brought to 140 the number of self-immolations in Tibetan areas of China since the wave of fiery protests began in 2009.
Authorities informed Gyatso’s relatives at around 3:00 p.m. on Thursday that he had died of his burns, a Tibetan living in India told RFA’s Tibetan Service, citing local sources.
“So two family members were asked to come to Dartsedo [Kangding] town in Sichuan to take charge of his remains,” RFA’s source, Lobsang Jinpa, said.
“However, the Tibetans in Tawu think that Tenzin Gyatso’s body has already been cremated, and that only his ashes will be given to his family.”
Weeks of harassment
Weeks of police harassment of local Tibetans ordered by a newly arrived county official had led to the beating and detention of many area residents, and had likely sparked Gyatso’s protest, a local source told RFA.
“The new deputy governor of Tawu county had cracked down on Tibetans suspected of organizing ‘separatist activities’ and planning celebrations for the 80th birth year of [exiled spiritual leader] the Dalai Lama,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“He also demanded that Tibetans sign a letter promising not to hold celebrations, and those who refused to sign were beaten and had their heads forcibly shaved,” he said.
The Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet into exile in 1959 following a failed national uprising against Chinese rule, was born on July 6, 1935.
Tawu’s new deputy governor had further intimidated local Tibetans by “conducting parades of security forces in the area,” he added.
Chinese police frequently investigate and arrest Tibetans suspected of supporting the India-based Dalai Lama, whom Beijing considers a dangerous separatist bent on “splitting” Tibet from Chinese control.
Over 80 Tawu-area Tibetans have recently been detained and are still in custody, Lobsang Jinpa said.
“Following [Gyatso’s] self-immolation, there were scuffles between Tibetans and the police over who would take possession of his body, and four girls—Tashi Dolma, Tsering, Choetso, and Rigdzin Lhamo—were taken into custody.”
All Tibetans detained by police in Tawu have now been “beaten and tortured,” he said.
Chinese authorities routinely accuse the Dalai Lama of inciting self-immolation protests among Tibetans, describing the burnings in a recent government report as “act[s] of violence, intended to create an atmosphere of terror and horror.”
In an April 15, 2015 reply, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) however called Beijing’s accusations “libelous” and “outrageous.”
“Over the years the Dalai Lama has publicly responded to these allegations by calling for an international and independent investigation into the underlying causes that have led to the self-immolations,” ICT said.
The burnings meanwhile continue—a situation described by Columbia University Tibet scholar Robbie Barnett as “tragic.”
“My guess is that these terrible incidents will continue either until the Dalai Lama directly asks for them to end or until exiles are able to communicate to those in Tibet that these deaths are getting little attention outside and may not be bringing a solution any closer.”
Reported by Sonam Wangdu and Kunsang Tenzin for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Karma Dorjee. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.