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Explainer: Why are Tibetan monks setting themselves on fire?

In the past year, sixteen former Tibetan monks or nuns have died by suicide after setting themselves on fire. But why?

A Tibetan exile monk holds his head as he takes part in a day-long hunger strike in New Delhi, India, to express solidarity with the plight of the people in Tibet, Tuesday 18 October 2011.
A Tibetan exile monk holds his head as he takes part in a day-long hunger strike in New Delhi, India, to express solidarity with the plight of the people in Tibet, Tuesday 18 October 2011.
Image: Manish Swarup/AP/Press Association Images

THIS WEEK, a 22-year-old former Tibetan monk named Lobsang Jamyang doused himself with petrol, walked into the middle of a street and set himself alight.

Lobsang is the sixteenth Tibetan to publicly set himself on fire in the past year, and is just one of 12 who are believed to have died from doing so.

But why are these men and women, all former monks or nuns, choosing to end their lives in such excruciating ways? And why now?

The background: China and the Tibetans

China maintains that Tibet has been part of China since the 13th century and that, as such, Beijing should continue to rule over the area. However, many Tibetans insist that this is not true – saying that the region (an area roughly the size of western Europe situated north-east of the Himalayan mountain range) has been an independent kingdom for centuries.

In 1950, during the final year of the Chinese Civil War, the Chinese army entered Tibetan territory. That year, the Chinese authorities entered negotiations with the government of the 14th Dalai Lama, which resulted in the signing of the contentious Seventeen Point Agreement – a document asserting China’s sovereignty over the area but also granting it autonomy.

The Tibetan political and spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, renounced the agreement soon afterwards, claiming that Tibetan officials had been placed under duress by China to sign.

During the Tibet Rebellion of 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to Dharamasla, India. From there he established the Tibetan government-in-exile and began a lifetime of advocacy work for Tibetans living in the region.

As things stand today

Many Tibetans accuse China of repressing their culture and denying them their human rights, including the right to free speech and cultural and religious expression.

The arrival of increasing numbers of Han Chinese in the Tibetan region, supported by China’s government, has also caused resentment among Tibetans  in recent years.

Moves by the Chinese authorities to replace the Dalai Lama with an alternative figure have also increased tensions.

What are the protests meant to achieve?

The last large-scale popular demonstration by Tibetans was in 2008, to mark the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

However, the series of self-immolations taking place over the past year mark a departure from such protests – and have been described by Free Tibet spokesperson Stephanie Bridgen as an “act of desperation”

“These latest self-immolations confirm that what we are currently witnessing in Tibet is a sustained and profound rejection of the Chinese occupation,” Bridgen said.

Bridgen said it was a “damning indictment of the international community” that the fact that so many people, in different parts of Tibet, had chosen to set themselves on fire had received no response from world leaders.

She added that international leaders could expect that such acts of protest will continue “for as long as world leaders turn a blind eye to the desperate situation in Tibet”.

Reaction

China has accused the Dalai Lama of encouraging the self-immolation suicides among vulnerable young monks and nuns in order to use their deaths for political gain. The Chinese authorities have increased the numbers of security personnel in the Tibetan region since the self-immolations began, and have supplied fire extinguishers to security officers patrolling the streets, according to Free Tibet

The Dalai Lama himself has condemned the suicides but has also strongly criticised China for its role in the deaths, saying that that China was forcing people into desperation by imposing “cultural genocide”.

Read: Two former Tibetan monks set themselves on fire>

Read: Shocking video of Tibetan nun’s self-immolation ‘smuggled out of China’>

Read: Eighth Tibetan man sets himself on fire in protest in China>

Read: Tibetan monks injured in self-immolation protest over Chinese rule>

Read: Tibetan monks jailed over immolation death>

Read: Tibetan monk dies in self-immolation protest over Chinese rule>

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