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Tibetans Turn to Setting Themselves on Fire to Protest China’s Rule

Pro-Tibetan demonstrators march in front of a hotel in Los Angeles on Feb. 16 during a visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images.

Fed up with the Chinese government’s tactics aimed at stemming unrest, some Tibetans have turned to a gruesome show of public protest — burning themselves.

The latest incidents occurred over the last three days when a Tibetan teenage boy, a teenage girl and a 32-year-old widow and mother died after they lit themselves on fire in public places. During the past year, at least 25 people have committed this act, which the Dalai Lama has said only worsens the situation with China.

We asked about the latest developments with correspondent Kathleen McLaughlin, who is based in Beijing and who recently returned from a reporting trip to Qinghai province on the northern side of the Tibetan plateau to file a series of reports for GlobalPost.

“Even in Qinghai province, where China is known to use a softer hand on dealing with Tibetans, the atmosphere was tense,”McLaughlin said. “All of the monks I met knew about the self-immolations in Sichuan and said they were impressed and awed by those who have taken up that form of protest.”

Outside of Qinghai, tensions were worse, she said, with several monks telling her they feared arrest if they were caught talking to a foreign journalist.

Tibetans and activist groups say China ramped up its military and security controls and surveillance in the autonomous region after massive protests in 2008 in Lhasa, the administrative capital of Tibet. In March of that year, street protests by mostly monks later unraveled into riots and looting.

“It appears the protests and self-immolations are in direct response to these controls, and the situation is not getting better,” McLaughlin said.

Tibetans say the Chinese government does not let them openly practice their religion, but the government says it treats all minorities well and has invested tens of billions of dollars in the area to help with development.

Tibetans are turning to the self-destructive behavior out of “sheer desperation,” McLaughlin said. “There is zero tolerance for mass protests in these areas, but many remain deeply unhappy about China’s controls on Tibet and religion. This appears to be a last resort, a final way to draw attention to the problem. Clearly Tibetans still trust the Dalai Lama, but for these people, the situation appears to have become untenable.”

Activist groups usually alert the media to the self-immolations. Because the Chinese government largely has barred foreign media from entering some areas of Tibet, it’s difficult to verify the burnings themselves, so reporters wait for China to do it, she said. “So far, Chinese official media have verified all but three of 24 cases. Since the two sides rarely if ever agree or have the same perspective, it’s somewhat reasonable to believe that if they both confirm the numbers, they’re probably true. That said, it’s far from an ideal way to report.”

How are Chinese in general reacting to these reports? “Thus far, China has done a very good job of controlling the message,” McLaughlin said. “Online chatter about the self-immolations has been censored and limited, along with regular media reports. So it’s not likely that the average person on the street has a very nuanced perspective on the issue, simply because access to information is so limited to the official line.”

The NewsHour has a partnership with the international news website GlobalPost. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.

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