TWO dozen Tibetans have set themselves on fire in western China this month in a dramatic acceleration of the protests against authoritarian Chinese rule, activist groups say.
The surge in self-immolations, and an increase in large demonstrations, mark a new phase in the Tibetan protests.
At least 86 people have set themselves on fire since the immolations began in 2009. In a change in recent months, most who choose to do this now are lay people – some of them acting together – rather than Buddhist monks and nuns, who can be more closely watched by the authorities because they live in tightly monitored monasteries.
Protesters have also sought to avoid direct attacks on authorities and government property, acts used in past to label them as riots or terrorism, providing an excuse for greater oppression.
But despite the altered approach, observers see little short-term possibility of Beijing changing its repressive policies.
Michael Davis, a law professor and expert on Tibet at the University of Hong Kong, said: “I think the problem will just escalate over time. The government shows no inclination to respond positively to recommendations for reform from the outside or Tibetans.”
In the latest protest, Kalsang Kyab, 24, doused himself with kerosene and set himself alight on Tuesday in front of local government offices in Kyangtsa in Aba prefecture, a hotbed of unrest, according to London-based Free Tibet and other groups.
On Monday, about 1,000 students staged a bold protest at Tsolho Medical Institute in Hainan prefecture in Qinghai province. Riot police fired shots into the air, released tear gas and beat the students with rifle butts – 20 students were taken to hospital, some with serious injuries.
Tibet and surrounding ethnically Tibetan regions have been closed off to most outsiders, and first-hand information is difficult to obtain. Authorities have not commented on the protest.
The students’ protest was sparked by a booklet distributed by authorities that derided the Tibetan language as irrelevant, attacked the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, and condemned the immolation protests as “acts of stupidity”.
The booklet is the latest in a series of perceived slights and intrusive measures by Chinese authorities that have left Tibetans feeling that the culture, language and Buddhist religion that are at the core of their identity are under threat. The feelings have also driven the immolations.
The combination of immolations and large-scale protests is posing a new challenge for security forces, which have been stationed in large numbers in Tibetan areas in recent years.
The surge in self-immolations represents an awareness of their impact among the Tibetan community and internationally, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at New York’s Columbia University. That would be likely inspire further protests, increasing the numbers of Tibetans willing to take their lives for the sake of their community, he said.
Protests have flared periodically since China first occupied Tibet in 1949. Tensions boiled over in 2008, when deadly rioting broke out in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and sparked an uprising across large parts of ethnically Tibetan areas. Since then, security – already extremely tight – has been smothering.