Xi unmoved by Tibetan self-immolation
By Saransh Sehgal
VIENNA - As Xi Jinping took official charge of China last week, the deadly toll from self-immolation as a protest against Beijing's hardline policies in Tibet reached 108.
Desperation is mounting among followers in China of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, while Beijing's bullying attitude towards them is intensifying. Despite pressure from world governments, the new Chinese leadership appears to trail the old party lines of economic development in Tibet rather than concern itself with the gravity of the human rights issue in the Chinese-ruled region.
The series of gruesome burnings began in February 2009, taking
place mostly in the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China in protest against the government policies on controlling religious freedom and activities of Tibetans. A 28-year-old monk, Lobsang Thokmey, set himself on fire inside his room in Kirti monastery in Aba County (Eastern Tibet) on March 16, becoming the 108th person to die in self-immolation in the past three years. He was carrying a Tibetan Buddhist prayer flag as he ran toward the monastery entrance, where he collapsed before being rushed to hospital, where he died, the US-backed broadcaster Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.
Tseten Samdup Chhoekyapa, a Geneva-based representative of the Dalai Lama for Central Europe said by phone: ''These self-immolations by Tibetans inside Tibet are their efforts to gain international attention over the issue of Tibet that would pressure the Chinese leadership to express their grief and the return of the His Holiness Dalai Lama. The Tibetan parliament and European Union both have expressed serious concerns over the issue and encouraged China to resolve the Tibet issue.''
''China is saying that everyone is happy inside Tibet, but on the other side shows no international behavior. We request fact findings mission to have access on the ground situation to which China denies,'' he added.
The state-run Global Times newspaper reported last week that Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee received a three-meter-long letter from 108 Tibetan lamas. Xi responded by saying, ''Tibet should find an effective way to maintain long-term stability and realize fast growth so the region can become a society of moderate prosperity along with the rest of the country by 2020.''
The China-appointed Panchen Lama was elected as a member of the Standing Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) National Committee, China's top political advisory body. The Panchen Lama is controversial religious figure in as much as exiled Tibetans believe Beijing uses him as a puppet in its strategy to maintain its dominance over Tibet.
The Chinese government says that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and have greatly benefited from economic progress in the region. It has rubbished any report of turmoil inside Tibet, blaming the Dalai Lama for such acts that it says are pushing a separatist agenda. The exiled leader says he is seeking greater autonomy rather than Tibetan independence. Foreign media have also been under constant attack from Beijing for portraying a negative image of the Himalayan plateau.
Beijing's reaction typically is to criticize statements by the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibet groups who support an independent Tibet. ''The Dalai clique cannot shrug off its responsibilities in those cases. Tens of people went onto the road of no return. Someone must bear the responsibility,'' said Qiangba Puncog, Deputy Party chief of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), as reported in the Chinese state media.
Authorities in Beijing have even claimed the arrests of a few Tibetan men in connection with the self-immolation, which they say are acts to incite trouble and are a response to the orders of overseas Tibetans groups. However, Beijing has failed to produce any solid evidence proving the Dalai Lama or exiled Tibet groups as the driving forces behind self-immolations.
Kate Saunders, spokesperson for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) told Asia Times Online that ''Xi Jinping power grab has come at the time of emergency in Tibet, the Beijing leadership's intransigence on Tibet is evident in the much more aggressive and formal approach to the self-immolations that has been adopted in recent weeks. These reprisals create a vicious circle which risks more self-immolations due to the unbearable nature of the oppression.""
The month of March is seen as the most protested time of the year for the Tibetans both in and outside Tibet. On March 10 exiled Tibetans commemorated the 54th anniversary of Tibetan people's protest against the Chinese incursion and occupation of Tibet where exiled Tibetans and their supporters across the world organized anti-China rallies which were witnessed from their exile capital Dharamsala, India to European Union capital in Brussels.
Beijing has been expanding the economy of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) for years, by improving infrastructure throughout the plateau, building highways and new roads to connect remote areas, and improved housing. ''The private sector is playing an increasingly important role in boosting the local economy and creating jobs for Tibetans,'' said Liao Yidong, vice chairman of Tibet's regional federation of industry and commerce as reported in the Chinese State media.
Over the past five years, Tibet has maintained annual GDP growth of 12%, and boosted incomes for both urban and rural residents, helped by an explosion in tourism. Despite such progress, Tibetans inside China are constantly reminding the government in Beijing that the leadership should realize that over last six decades they have been unable win the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people.
In a statement on the March 10 Uprising Day (now also observed as Martyrs Day), Dr Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister (or Sikyong in Tibetan) of the Tibetan government-in-exile, said: ''The occupation and repression in Tibet by the government of the People's Republic of China are the primary conditions driving Tibetans to self-immolation. Tibetans witness and experience China's constant assault on Tibetan Buddhist civilization, their very identity and dignity.''
The self-immolators even demand the return of their exiled spiritual head the Dalai Lama who fled his homeland in 1959 after a failed uprising and has since based himself in the Indian Himalayan town of Dharamsala. Until 2011, the Dalai Lama even headed the role as the political head of the Tibetans, but resigned for a more democratic leadership in exile.
The Chinese government has attempted to impose a news blackout in the region. Even envoys of Canada and Australia who urged to visit Tibet were denied in the Himalayan plateau. Regardless of serious consequences, a few Tibetans risk their life sending bits of information to the outside world.
Various governments, joined by the United Nations and the European Union parliament, have urged the Chinese government to address the Tibetan people's grievances and end policies that are forcing Tibetans to take such radical movements.
''We remain concerned by the deteriorating human rights situation in Tibetan areas, including the numerous tragic self-immolations that have occurred and related reports of detentions and arrests,'' US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell told in a media briefing on March 1.
Yet world pressure has seemingly had little affect on Beijing. Frustration over Beijing's attitude looms larger in the exiled Tibetan community, fueling debate on whether the self-immolations have produced more hardline policies from Beijing.
Exiled Tibetans say the Chinese authorities have responded to the crisis with more suppressive actions such as deployment of massive security in the Tibetan areas that has eroded day-to-day Tibetan life and culture. Inside the exile movement, the self-immolations are turning many to a more radical path.
While 54 years have passed, a solution on the Tibet issue seems far from being found. The last negotiations between Beijing and exiles, in January 2010, were a complete failure. Many hardliners in the exile movement are demanding a change in the Dalai Lama's middle way path, which is respected by most Tibetans.
Political analysts watching the Tibetan burnings and power transition in Beijing doubt Xi Jinping attitude to towards Tibet will change until the exiles get sympathy from the Han Chinese.
Dr Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of international relations at the University of Westminster in England told Asia Times Online by e-mail: ''China's Tibet policy should be seen in the wider context to its desire to maintain domestic stability while rising as a great power. On Tibet there will be mostly a continuity of old policies and as long as Tibetan self-immolations do not lead to a wider sympathy and support amongst the Han Chinese people, the government will see it as a minor irritant.''
''China may decide to resume dialogue only if it feels that is essential to improve its image abroad without acknowledging the Dalai Lama as crucial for stability in Tibet. The main impact of these self-immolations is likely to be further radicalization of Tibet movement, increasing nationalism and conflict in Tibet, questioning of the middle way approach of dialogue with China, and more support for independence,'' he added.
In Dharamsala, younger generations continue to remain as thorn for Beijing. Lobsang Wangyal, an exiled Tibetan entrepreneur says: ''The movement will continue, the younger generations have now taken the helm of the movement and they are more than willing to fight until their dream is fulfilled.
''Not solving the Tibetan issue will only cost a huge price for China. The Tibetan issue will only remain a pebble in the shoes of the Chinese government,'' he added.
Saransh Sehgal is based in Dharamsala, India and Vienna, Austria. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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