Two men lit themselves on fire Sunday in Lhasa, Chinese state media and overseas Tibetan groups reported, marking the first time that the self-immolation protests have reached the Tibetan capital. One of the men, Tobgye Tseten from the largely Tibetan county of Xiahe in Gansu province, died from his injuries, according to a report from the state-run Xinhua news service. The second man, Dargye, from Aba in western Sichuan, was hospitalized, according to Xinhua. The two set themselves aflame on Barkhor Street outside Lhasa’s Jokhang Temple, a key holy site for Tibetan Buddhists. The temple, which has been under tight security since anti-Chinese riots hit the city in 2008, was busy with celebrations of Saga Dawa — which marks the anniversary of the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death — when the two men walked out of a nearby hotel, gave what the Free Tibet activist group described as a victory cry and set themselves on fire around 2:15 p.m.
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Since 2001 more than 30 Tibetans, mostly monks, but including at least one nun and some laypeople, have set themselves on fire to protest China’s heavy-handed control of Tibet. (The Guardian has a graphic detailing 33 Tibetan self-immolation cases.) The protests have been centered in Aba, a largely Tibetan county in western Sichuan province. In March a Tibetan man died after setting himself alight in New Delhi to protest a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao. The spread to Lhasa marks a new stage in the movement, one likely to worry Chinese authorities who have responded to the immolations by tightening security in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibetan regions in western China. The first case of self-immolation by a Tibetan was recorded in 1998, followed more than a decade later by a case in 2009. The numbers accelerated in 2011. Since then, the Chinese government has blocked foreign journalists, diplomats and scholars from visiting, making outside investigations difficult, while domestic media have avoided detailed reporting of the protests.
The coverage that has run in China places blame for the surge in self-immolations on the Dalai Lama and insists that the deaths are part of an effort to split Tibet from China. Padma Choling, the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet, said in a March speech that extremist violence in the region was “instigated and trumped by the Dalai clique.” The Tibetan government-in-exile has denied such allegations. While in Europe last week, the Dalai Lama told a television interviewer that “it’s worth noting that such events did not take place before the Chinese came to Tibet.”
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The past year’s self-immolations may have been influenced by a notion of self-sacrifice that ironically comes from Chinese Communist Party teachings, Tsering Shakya, a scholar at the University of British Columbia, wrote in a recent essay in the journal Cultural Anthropology. These protests are not expressly religious but have a religious context, as they are often carried out by Tibetans revolting against government attacks on the Dalai Lama, Shakya wrote:
Self-immolation as a form of protest is not intrinsically a Buddhist act any more than suicide bombing is an Islamic act. What links the current incidents to religion is that most of the Tibetans who have committed self-immolation have been monks, former monks or nuns. Their actions were not an obeisance to religion or the performing of virtue. Rather, they signify something entirely different: they are a product of “rage,” induced by daily humiliation and intolerable demands for conformity and obedience. Religious figures in Tibet have been particularly subjected to the discipline of patriotic education and the campaigns opposing the so-called “Dalai clique.” These campaigns, viewed by the monks as a regime of degradation, require them to endlessly feign compliance, obliging them to demonstrate repeatedly their patriotism and fidelity to the Communist Party. That is not an easy task to sustain, and we see that it has finally become something they refuse to do.