China: Self-immolators and their abettors will be charged with murder

December 6, 2012

An unprecedented 91 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past 18 months, a sign of worsening despair over what many Tibetans see as a systematic attempt by the Chinese government to eradicate their culture.

Exiled Tibetans shout slogans during a protest rally to express solidarity with Tibetan self-immolators on Nov. 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri). Click through for more photos from Tibet.
Exiled Tibetans shout slogans during a protest rally to express solidarity with Tibetan self-immolators on Nov. 28, 2012. (Altaf Qadri -- Associated Press). Click through for more photos from Tibet.

China's response has so far been to blame the Dalai Lama and accuse immolators of "damaging the harmony and stability" in the area.

As the pace of the self-immolations rises, Chinese authorities have already cracked down by stopping public benefits to the immolators' households. Now, they're going a step further, vowing to charge anyone found "inciting" a self-immolation with murder. According to the Gannan Daily, the local government-run paper in China’s Gansu province:

A joint legal opinion issued by China's supreme court, top prosecution body and police said the charge of "intentional murder" should apply to anyone urging Tibetans to set themselves alight, the state-run Gannan Daily reported.

The government's directives, which have been translated by the San Francisco-based Duihua Foundation, argue that self-immolators aren't like "the ordinary world-weary person who commits suicide. Their common motivation is to split the nation and they endanger public safety and social order, classifying their self-immolations as illegal criminal acts."

The law appears to prohibit anyone from encouraging an immolation, grabbing hold of another person while burning, and otherwise self-immolating and living to tell about it:

The Opinion makes clear that those criminals who act as principal culprits behind the scenes to organize, direct, and plot [self-immolations], as well as those who actively participate in inciting, coercing, enticing, abetting, or assisting others to carry out self-immolations, will be held criminally liable for intentional homicide in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Criminal Law of the PRC and targeted for severe punishment in accordance with the law.

It's unclear whether the law or the other disincentives will actually stop self-immolations, however. Although clusters of Tibetan monks have set themselves alight in several cities, a map of self-immolators created by Save Tibet shows that the incidents are overall quite spread out, suggesting they don't stem from one central instigator:


Screenshot: Save Tibet

What's more, the vast majority, 75, of the 92 people who have set themselves on fire in the past three years, died during the protest, so the Chinese government likely won't have many self-immolation survivors to make an example of.

As the Washington Post's Simon Denyer reported, China's barrage of measures aimed at assimilating Tibetans has exacerbated an already volatile political situation there:

A program to resettle Tibet’s nomads into apartments or cinder-block houses and fence off their vast grasslands has gathered pace, the replacement of Tibetan by Chinese as a medium of instruction in schools has been expanded, and government control over Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries, the center of religious and cultural life, has been tightened.

"These are devastating for people, and then there is no freedom of speech and no freedom of expression for the Tibetan people," Tenzin Dorjee, the executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, told NTDTV

The Dalai Lama has said that he does not condone the immolations, but he has largely removed himself from the debate, Denyer reported.

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Max Fisher · December 6, 2012