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Kate Saunders is the Communications Director of International Campaign for Tibet.

China drives Tibet’s young to commit self-immolation

An exiled Tibetan shouts slogans against China as she is detained by policemen during a protest outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi on 2 November. PTI

rom his monastery in exile in Sidhbari, Himachal Pradesh, the 17th Karmapa made a heartfelt statement about the ten Tibetan monks and two nuns in eastern Tibet who have set fire to themselves in recent months — a new and disturbing development driven by the anguish of oppression. "These desperate acts, carried out by people with pure motivation, are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live," said the Karmapa who, in his mid-twenties, is the same generation as the young Tibetans who have committed this agonizing act.

The Karmapa — who lives in India after escaping from Tibet in 2000 — went on to appeal to Tibetans to protect their lives: "Each report of self-immolation from Tibet has filled my heart with pain. Most of those who have died have been very young. They had a long future ahead of them, an opportunity to contribute in ways that they have now foregone. In Buddhist teaching life is precious. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives. We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet. Although the situation is difficult, we need to live long and stay strong without losing sight of our long term goals."

Most of the self-immolations have occurred in the Tibetan area of Ngaba, known in Chinese as Aba, in Sichuan province (the Tibetan area of Amdo), and have been associated with one of the most important and influential monasteries in the region, Kirti — once a power-house of learning, education, and religious teaching.

The situation now at this great monastery is comparable to the military occupation of a great university such as Oxford or Harvard. Since the death of 20-year-old Kirti monk Phuntsog, who set fire to himself on 16 March, Kirti has been under almost complete lockdown by Chinese troops.

In India last week, near the Karmapa's monastery, I visited a Kirti monk who had just arrived in exile after a dangerous journey from Tibet. We met in a refugee reception centre run by the Tibetan government in exile and funded mainly by the US government, set in a valley alive with birdsong and lush vegetation.

The 17-year-old Kirti monk had been a close friend of Phuntsog, whose cremation was attended by hundreds of Tibetans chanting prayers for his soul in acknowledgment of his sacrifice. He did not witness his friend's self-immolation, but he was there soon

afterwards in Ngaba town, and saw the white chemical marks on the ground where police had extinguished the flames and beaten his friend as he lay there, scarcely alive.

The young Kirti monk told us that after his friend's self-immolation in March, the first this year, repression intensified. A rigorous "patriotic education" campaign was stepped up; monks under political suspicion were dragged from their cells in the middle of the night and returned later, almost broken by torture; others were expelled or imprisoned. Religious ceremonies were not permitted, and monks were not even allowed to burn incense.

It is a campaign of terror by the Chinese authorities, who accuse the Tibetans of "terrorism in disguise". Given the level of provocation and oppression, the actions of Tibetans can more accurately be defined as a rejection of terrorism.

Although those committing these acts are primarily young — with most in their late teens — their context is a shared history over the

past half century of grief, dispossession and loss, and now, the most systematic assault against the religious practices and beliefs that are at the core of Tibetan identity.

We do not know the last words of nun Palden Choetso, who walked out of her nunnery on 3 November, doused herself in kerosene, and set fire to herself. But we are told that among them were prayers for the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, which seems to be the case for virtually all of the Tibetans who have immolated themselves since Tapey in February 2009.

In the first footage to emerge of a self-immolation, Kirti monk Lobsang Kunchok is seen lying on the ground surrounded by armed troops in riot gear. In the background the chilling scream of a woman, calling the name of the Dalai Lama over and over again, can be heard (

The sense of separation from the Tibetan exiled leader has never been so acute among Tibetans in Tibet, and just as the Chinese authorities refuse to give any hope that he will return, so the dangerous cycle of despair is perpetuated. The self-immolations are a terrible indictment of China's Tibet policy. Just as Beijing responded to the overwhelmingly peaceful protests that swept across the Tibetan plateau by strengthening the very measures that had led to the unrest in the first place, so their responses to the self-immolations risk the further loss of life and radicalisation among Tibetans.

Tibetan from Ngaba wrote recently that the occurrence of this new type of protest is "because many people cannot see how to go on living." "The Patriotic Education" campaign and violent intimidation being touted as the solution to this issue are just a return to the old patterns of confrontation and will lead only to the creation of new confrontations. To have to relinquish our ethnic-national identity and culture is to relinquish the point of living for Tibetans, so the present repressive and punitive policies are literally tearing out the hearts of the Ngaba people."

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