In Tibet, people are lighting themselves on fire in defense of language rights. Since 2009, when the current wave of protests began over Chinese policy in Tibet, there have been 95 Tibetan self-immolations, nearly a third of them since November. The latest to die is Benchen Kyi, a Buddhist nun. She set herself ablaze on December 9, fueling further protests and additional arrests.
“Chinese authorities have responded to these tragic incidents with measures that tighten already strict controls on freedoms of religion, expression, assembly and association of Tibetans,” said Maria Otero, the U.S. State Department’s Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues. “Official rhetoric that denigrates the Tibetan language, the Dalai Lama, and those who have self-immolated has further exacerbated tensions.”
Otero stated that Beijing must address policies causing discontent in Tibetan areas, including controls on Tibetan Buddhist religious practice, education practices that undermine the Tibetan language, and the surveillance, arbitrary detention, and disappearances of Tibetans.
In the best “The East Is Red” tradition, communist officials and security forces have responded to the burning protests by punishing the families and communities of protestors, treating immolations as criminal offenses, arresting those associated with the self-immolators, and the deployment of paramilitary forces as well as communications and travel restrictions.
According to the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, young people in Tibet are becoming increasingly radicalized in their opposition to Chinese policy in the region. The story was reported by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times last week.
The most recent wave of protests was triggered when the Chinese officials distributed a pamphlet promoting bilingual education in Chinese and Tibetan. But party officials couldn’t resist including a dig at the Dalai Lama, calling him a “political itinerant who wants to split the Chinese Motherland.” It also described the self-immolators as puppets controlled by “foreign imperialist forces.”
These flyers were used to fan the flames of protest, literally. And when police saw protesters burning government property, it was considered sufficient cause to wade into the crowd with batons swinging.
Kate Saunders, communications director for the International Campaign for Tibet, said the protests demonstrate the hatred of Tibetan students for Chinese educational policies, which often emphasize Mandarin over Tibetan.
The pace of protest and immolation is increasing as the young people become radicalized. Kyi, aged 17, is said to have chosen to self-immolate in a nomadic area away from public view so that her parents would be able to recover her body before the police. She apparently thought the police unlikely to return her remains to her family if they got to the site first.