The title of this WaPo article isn’t exactly correct, in that China actually does have the power to stop the self-immolations, but resolutely refuses to use it.
“Almost all of them were born after the Chinese occupation of Tibet and the Cultural Revolution,” Lobsang Sangay, the political leader of the refugee community’s India-based government-in-exile said of the perpetrators. “They have grown up in the Chinese system, received Chinese education. They are the primary beneficiaries of whatever the Chinese government gave them. They are saying ‘this is not what we want.’ ”
Last week alone, seven people doused themselves in gasoline and set fire to themselves in eastern Tibet, including two cousins in their twenties who called for “freedom for Tibet” before setting themselves ablaze in front of a government building. At least 62 people have set themselves on fire inside Tibet since February 2009, and all but nine are known to have died, the Free Tibet group says.
China says it rescued the Tibetan people from medieval serfdom under the Dalai Lama’s theocratic rule when it took over in 1950 and in recent years has poured money into the region to build roads, a high-speed railway and projects such as rural electrification.
It blames the self-immolations on the old regime’s attempts to split the country. “This is shameful and should be condemned,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a news conference last week.
But many Tibetans appear to view the perpetrators as heroes, sometimes trying to prevent Chinese police removing their bodies, laying ceremonial scarves at protest sites, or paying tribute to their families.
“Tibetans are responding to China’s repressive policies, to seeing their neighbors, friends and families attacked, harassed, beaten and jailed,” said Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute. “The self-immolations are a response to escalating repression, which the Chinese meet with more repression, and we are in this vicious cycle.”
“Local authorities are under pressure from the central government to put an end to this,” said Elliot Sperling, a Tibet expert at Indiana University. “But this is a form of protest that doesn’t need a conspiracy, it just needs a person. These fliers seem to me to be somewhat desperate.”
The protests have spread because the “tactic is resonating,” said Sperling, although some activists said the recent spurt could be linked to the imminent party congress.
One of the men who set himself ablaze last week had called a friend the day before and asked when the congress was taking place, said Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet, adding that the man had complained that the Chinese government was doing nothing to improve conditions in Tibet.
“This is the first direct evidence we’ve had that Tibetans are factoring this into the decision to self-immolate so close to party congress time,” she said.
In September, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke paid a rare visit to Aba, the restive area where many of the self-immolations have taken place, and visited monasteries. He called the incidents “very deplorable.”
“We implore the Chinese to really meet with the representatives of the Tibetan people to address and reexamine some of the policies that have led to some of the restrictions and the violence and the self-immolations,” Locke told an online forum Monday. “We very much believe there should be respect for the culture and religion of the Tibetan people, as well as the language of the Tibetan people.”