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    South Asia
     Mar 17, 2012


West silent on Tibetan self-immolation
By Saransh Sehgal

VIENNA - More Tibetan Buddhist monks in China are resorting to self-immolation in desperate protest against Beijing’s suppression of religious freedoms. However, the suicidal acts have failed to attract global attention to the Tibet issue.

Experts on Tibet attribute this to the rise of China as an economic superpower, with Western and Asian foreign governments, avoiding confrontation with Beijing.

At least 28 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in a wave of protests since February 2009, with 15 cases taking place in the last three months amid reported unrest in the Himalaya region. This has prompted Tibetans in exile to launch worldwide protests against China's cultural and religious policies toward Tibet. However, no foreign government is willing to put serious pressure on Beijing over the issue.

"As China's economic power increases and that of the West

 

declines, the Tibet issue risks being confined to a small section of civil society. In the past, Western government would at least pay lip service to the rights of the Tibetans. As China ups the ante, Western governments' appetite to upset it disappears," Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of international relations at London's University of Westminster, wrote in an e-mail to Asia Times Online.

Frustrated by the indifference of the world, religious followers inside of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, inside and outside China, are set to continue their struggle for a Free Tibet.

However, Chinese authorities have heightened their vigilance in Tibetan-inhabited regions inside China in the sensitive month of March. March 10 marks the anniversaries of the Dalai Lama's fleeing Tibet to India after a failed armed uprising in 1959 against Chinese rule, and of 2008 bloody riots in Lhasa - Tibet's capital - amid Tibetan protests. Tibet watchers warn that more self-immolations might happen this month.

The latest self-immolation occurred on March 14 in northwestern Qinghai province, according to China's state run Xinhua News Agency. Jamyang Palden, a monk from the Rongwo Monastery, walked out of his temple at 10:42 am, dressed in gasoline-soaked robes, and used a lighter to set fire to himself.

Rongwo Monastery is the second-largest temple of Tibetan Buddhism in Qinghai, located in Tongren County in the Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Huangnan.

Security guards on duty nearby rushed to put out the blaze and sent him to the Huangnan People's Hospital. But some monks and local residents went to the hospital at noon and forcibly took Jamyang Palden away from the hospital, Xinhua said quoting a local government spokesman.

Four days before, on March 10, a teenage Tibetan monk, Gepey, from the Kirti Monastery in Aba prefecture of Sichuan province, set fire to himself. "18-year-old Gepey self-immolated behind a military camp on March 10 in Aba… locals tried to take his body away but security personnel removed it," the London-based Free Tibet group said.

Just days before, on March 6, an 18-year-old Tibetan protester Dorjee set himself on fire and died, also in Aba prefecture. "Dorjee walked towards a local government office in Ngaba County (Aba prefecture) shouting slogans against the Chinese government's policies on Tibet before he self-immolated and died," said the international Tibet campaign group Save Tibet.

Tibetan-inhabited areas in Sichuan, Gansu and provinces - outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region proper are increasingly the Interestingly the epicenter of the self-immolation.

Chinese government officials have recently branded the acts of self-immolation as "suicide terrorism" and held the Dalai Lama responsible. Some Chinese media commentaries said the Dalai Lama deliberately instigated suicide protests outside Tibet proper to "justify" his claim for a "greater Tibet", in other words to show that his influence extends to Tibetan-inhabited areas beyond Tibet proper.

Wu Zegang, head of Aba prefecture in Sichuan, had earlier made similar allegations. "Some of the suicides are committed by clerics returning to secular life, and they all have criminal records or suspicious activities. They have a very bad reputation in society," said Wu, himself an ethnic Tibetan.

However, at a press conference in Beijing on March 14 at the end of the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao appeared to strike a different note, saying he was "deeply distressed" by the self-immolations. "The young Tibetans are innocent. We feel deeply distressed by their behavior." He also stressed that that the Chinese government was "opposed to such radical moves that disturb and undermine social harmony".

Wen also accused the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala of trying to separate Tibet and its inhabitants away from China. "We have a firm position and principle on this matter," he added.

Meanwhile, Tibetan exiles have rejected the allegations and continued a series of mass protests against Beijing's policies, while calling for intervention from the United Nations and major governments.

On the eve of the anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising, mass protests were launched by Tibetans and their support groups from their exiled capital Dharamsala, India to Times Square New York. Hunger strikes, Candle light vigils, remonstrations and public anger were witnessed in every Tibetan community across the world.

On March 8, during the conclusion of a five-day Monlam Chenmo (great prayer festival) in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama said, "Truth is being violently suppressed inside Tibet right now ... truth is losing to might and power but there is nothing much we can do."

Marking the March 10 anniversary of the failed uprising, Dr Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, said, "I offer tribute to the brave people who have sacrificed so much for Tibet. Despite 53 years of occupation by the People's Republic of China (PRC), the Tibetan spirit and identity inside Tibet remains unbroken ... Fault lies squarely with the hardline leaders in Beijing," he said. "We hope that China's upcoming leaders will initiate genuine change, and that they find the wisdom to admit the government's long-standing hardline policy in Tibet has failed."

Countries neighboring China like Nepal and India also seem to have yielded to China's economic power and influence and do their best to prevent any anti-China activities on their soil. No other Asian countries has actually shown much concern with what happens inside Tibet. Instead, their governments always reiterate their recognition of Tibet as part of the People's Republic of China (PRC) and that the issue is an internal affair of China.

Western countries which used to raise Tibet as an issue in their relations with China now also appear to overlook or bypass it when dealing with China.

During a visit to the United States in February by Vice Chinese President Xi Jinping - tipped to succeed Hu Jintao as China's supreme leader later this year - President Barack Obama and senior US officials never broached the Tibet issue.

This rendered a recent statement by US Special coordinator for Tibetan Issues Maria Otero rather weak.

"The US Government consistently and directly has raised the issue of Tibetan self-immolations with the Chinese government, " said Otero in January. " The US Government repeatedly has urged the Chinese government to address the counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions and that threaten the distinct religious, cultural and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people."

"South Asian governments' record when it comes to raising issues of human rights anywhere is rather abysmal. While Nepal acts against its Tibetan residents as if it is a surrogate of the Chinese government. India's conduct is only marginally better," says Anand at the University of Westminster.

Associate professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University, says "China exercises a degree of leverage over the way it is criticized by dint of its economic footprint in the world and this is reflected in the ways in which it is criticized (or not criticized) over Tibet."

But for Tibetan exiles, international support, especially support from big powers such as the US, is very important for the Free Tibet movement. Now the community of Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala starts to discuss and debate how to win back international attention and support to their cause, seeing that even the extreme protests of self-immolations are largely overlooked.

Lobsang Wangyal, an exiled Tibetan entrepreneur living in India says, "Tibetans in Tibet have long said they are not happy under Chinese rule. The self-immolations are saying that they mean it. But the world is paying little attention. It gives a feeling that 25 Tibetans risking their lives is still not enough to make a point and as if more lives should be sacrificed."

Saransh Sehgal is a freelance contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who currently is pursuing further study in Vienna. He can be reached at saranshsehgal@gmail.com.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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