SHANGHAI — A former Tibetan monk set himself on fire Thursday in the Chinese-ruled Tibetan autonomous region, exiles and outside advocacy groups said. It was the latest in a series of self-immolations that are challenging Beijing’s effort to subdue dissent in far western China, and the first in Tibet proper.
According to the reports, which could not be independently verified, Tenzin Phuntsog, 46, formerly of the Karma monastery in the town of Chamdo, ignited himself near the monastery. He survived and is being treated at a hospital, the reports said.
Government officials in the area said they were not allowed to speak about incidents involving “state secrets.” Hospitals reached for comment also said they had no information. Foreign journalists are barred from traveling independently to the Tibetan autonomous region or to the Tibetan areas of neighboring Sichuan province.
If confirmed, the incident would be the 12th self-immolation since March. The earlier cases — in which nine monks and two nuns set themselves on fire, typically while chanting slogans against Chinese rule and demanding the return of the exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama — all occurred in predominantly Tibetan regions of Sichuan province.
At least half of those who set themselves on fire have died, and Chinese troops patrolling the area now carry fire extinguishers as part of their riot-control equipment.
The incidents have occurred even as Chinese officials in Beijing tout the economic benefits they have showered on the Tibet region in recent years, in the form of more roads, schools, electricity and basic infrastructure.
In March 2008, the region exploded in widespread rioting. Despite a heavy security clampdown since, Tibetans have remained restive, spurning Han Chinese authority and insisting that the Dalai Lama is their legitimate leader.
One 72-year-old monk who had traveled to Shanghai from Sichuan province and agreed to be interviewed said the self-immolations are a spontaneous reaction by young religious Tibetans to Chinese repression. Older monks, he said, while not encouraging the protests, saw some benefits.
“Some senior monks think the death of those young monks is valuable,” he said. “It might force the government to change its policy.”
I believe so, too,” he added.
The monk said he had already seen some small shifts in government policy, such as financial support for improvements in monasteries in the Tibetan regions and a move to allow more use of Tibetan language for college exams. He also said the government was offering monks some monthly social-welfare payments, although most were refusing to take the money.
At the same time, the government has increased security patrols and cameras around the entrances to monasteries, and monks’ movements are highly restricted.
Thursday’s reported incident was in the area where a mysterious bombing targeted a government building in October and was blamed on Tibetan separatists. After the blast, scores of monks were reportedly detained and dozens more fled into the mountains to escape the security crackdown.
Chinese officials in Beijing have blamed the Dalai Lama for the self-immolations, saying he is encouraging his “terrorist” followers to kill themselves to advance their separatist cause.
The Dalai Lama has said the actions stem from “cultural genocide” and the desperate conditions Tibetans face under Chinese rule. Last month, however, the 76-year-old Nobel laureate reiterated: “We are totally committed to upholding the nonviolence principle.”
The latest incident is also significant because the Karma monastery is under the Kaygu order of Tibetan Buddhism, led by the exiled 17th Karmapa Lama, who lives in India and is also called Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The 26-year-old Karmapa Lama is, with the Dalai Lama, one of the three highest figures in Tibetan Buddhism.
The Karmapa Lama issued a statement Nov. 9 specifically calling on his followers to stop self-immolation.
“These desperate acts, carried out by people with pure motivation, are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live,” the statement said. “We Tibetans are few in number. . . . I request the people of Tibet to preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet.”
Beijing-based writer and blogger Tsering Woeser said the Karmapa Lama’s followers “should have listened to him. . . . But this self-immolation still happened. This shows the situation is very serious, and people have no other way but to resort to self-immolation.”
Researcher Wang Juan in Shanghai contributed to this report.