An account released on Wednesday of an ethnic Tibetan man in western China lighting himself on fire earlier this month, calling for the long life of the Dalai Lama before dying in the flames, marked the 100th reported self-immolation since 2009, a dramatic milestone in a series of fiery protests that Beijing has sought to crack down on but has not managed to stop.
The fact that news of the man’s Feb. 3 death – he’s been identified as Lobsang Namgyal, 37 – took 10 days to surface in a release by the London-based advocacy group Free Tibet is testament to the ever-tightening cordon imposed by the Chinese Communist Party on ethnic Tibetan regions where the self-immolations have occurred.
Free Tibet said in a statement that after Lobsang Namgyal’s self-immolation, his younger brother was detained, his family members were followed and their telephones were placed under surveillance.
“China employs brutal repression, propaganda and bribery to no avail: protest and resistance will continue as long as the Tibetan people are denied their freedom,” said the organization’s director, Stephanie Brigden.
A second prominent Tibetan rights group, the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, attributed the news of Lobsang Namgyal’s self-immolation to reports from Tibetan monks living in exile.
Chinese Communist Party officials maintain that the campaign of self-immolations is being coordinated by those close to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959. The state media has announced a series of recent court cases in which ethnic Tibetans were sent to prison for allegedly inciting self-immolations and their “efforts to spread ideas” about Tibetan independence.
Those cases, and other state media reporting, assert that a conspiracy was hatched by the “Dalai Lama clique” to attempt to destabilize ethnic Tibetan areas in China by encouraging the self-immolations.
But residents interviewed in those regions say that the protests are borne from deep frustration with an authoritarian regime that they fear is working to eradicate or undermine their language, customs and religious practices.
The self-immolations began in February 2009 in a Tibetan enclave of China’s western Sichuan Province, where Lobsang Namgyal also reportedly set himself aflame. They soon spread to three adjoining areas: the provinces of Qinghai and Gansu, and Tibet itself, which is tightly controlled by Beijing and known formally as the Tibet Autonomous Region.
All but that first one in 2009 have occurred since a 20-year-old monk named Phuntsog – many Tibetans have just one name – set himself ablaze on March 16, 2011, apparently to mark the third-anniversary of protests near his Kirti Monastery in the town of Aba. Tibetan advocacy groups assert that during those 2008 protests, part of wider unrest that swept across the Tibetan Plateau at the time, Chinese security forces killed at least 10 people.
More than 80 of those who’ve self-immolated are said to have died.
Both of the Tibetan advocacy groups who released information about the latest self-immolation said that Lobsang Namgyal had been a monk at Kirti Monastery when he disappeared last September, reportedly into police custody for some two weeks. The Free Tibet group said that he had left the monastery after resurfacing, allegedly due to threats by police.
“Lobsang Namgyal had been so distressed that he had left for a rural nomadic area away from the monastery, but still he had been under intense surveillance,” according to a post on the International Campaign for Tibet’s website.
“Before his death on February 3, he had returned to Kirti monastery and told some Tibetans that he wanted to go away on a religious retreat,” said the International Campaign for Tibet statement. “A few days later, he set himself on fire.”