The unprecedented self-immolations in Tibet’s capital Lhasa highlight Beijing’s difficulty in getting a handle on the Tibetan situation.
The weekend self-immolations by two young Tibetan men in Lhasa suggest that the protest movement to restore Tibetan rights is gaining momentum internally, much to the chagrin of the Chinese authorities who have portrayed the burnings as isolated incidents fueled by exile groups, according to experts.
The first self-immolation protests in Lhasa appear to be a major setback for the Chinese security forces, who have been on red alert since anti-government riots rocked the Tibet Autonomous Region capital four years ago.
Nearly all the 35 previous self-immolations by Tibetans pushing for an end to Beijing’s rule and the return of the exiled Dalai Lama have been in Tibetan-populated provinces in China, especially in Sichuan, the epicenter of the burnings which have intensified since March 2011.
«The latest self-immolations show that the protests are now widespread and have covered all of the Tibetan region, from the Tibet Autonomous Region to the parts of Tibet that were merged with the Chinese provinces of Qinghai, Sichuan, and Gansu,» said Mohan Malik, professor of Asian security at the Hawaii-based Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.
«It goes to show that the Chinese are unable to control the situation,» he told RFA. «The self-immolations give them bad publicity, are bad for China’s image as a rising power, and undermine attempts to project China as a great benign power.»
But Malik said he is not optimistic that the spreading self-immolations, triggered by allegedly repressive and discriminatory Chinese policies towards Tibetans, would boost the Tibetan cause.
«This is because the Chinese have dealt with the situation pretty ruthlessly so far and every protest is dealt with by adopting harsher measures,» he said.
Beijing is also unlikely to soften its stance against protesting Tibetans ahead of the once-in-a-decade leadership succession in the ruling Chinese Community Party at the end of the year, Malik said.
«No leader will want to be seen as weak during this transition.»
In fact, Tibetan exile and advocacy groups say Tibetans are already paying the price for the self-immolations that took place on Sunday in front of the Jokhang Temple in central Lhasa–reputedly the ultimate pilgrimage destination for Tibetan pilgrims.
The London-based Free Tibet group said it has received reports that Tibetan residents of Lhasa have been arbitrarily detained, and that those from Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba) prefecture, where one of the self-immolators came from and where the restive Kirti monastery is situated, have been especially targeted.
The owner and staff from the restaurant where the other self -mmolator worked were also arrested on Sunday, Free Tibet said amid reports that Lhasa city has come under even tighter security than usual, with police and paramilitary officers out in full force.
The Chinese authorities have been trying their best to prevent the self-immolations from reaching Lhasa and other major Chinese cities to avoid international embarrassment, said Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York.
«The self-immolations in Lhasa are a very serious development,» he told RFA.
They signify a growing political movement inside the Tibetan areas and dispel the notion created by the Chinese authorities that Tibetan exile groups are behind the deadly protests, Barnett said.
The wave of self-immolations in the Tibetan-populated Chinese provinces over the last year have been mostly viewed as protests against specific events, such as excessive security operations, particularly crackdowns on Buddhist monasteries, he said.
«Now it looks like many of the immolations, probably the latest ones in Lhasa, hundreds of miles away from other self-immolations, are not prompted by a particular incident but are a general social or political movement that is spreading,» he said.
Barnett said the Chinese authorities probably are also concerned by the memories of previous self-immolation protests by five people in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 2001. The authorities said then the self-immolators belonged to Falun Gong, a banned spiritual group.
«They probably fear that these things would take place in major cities which are embarrassing to China and of course generate more adverse publicity internationally,» he said.
China has ruled Tibet since 1950, and the Chinese government has repeatedly accused exiled Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama, of stoking dissent against its rule. The spiritual leader fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising.
The latest self-immolations came as the Tibetan government-in-exile in India waged an international campaign to expose what it called human rights abuses against Tibetans and their eroding freedom.
It cited in a statement at least seven reasons why, it said, Beijing is responsible for the self-immolations in Tibet: its continuing «occupation» of Tibet, political repression, patriotic re-education and demonization of the Dalai Lama, shooting and killing of peaceful Tibetan protesters, economic marginalization and turning Tibetans into «second-class» citizens in their own homeland, cultural assimilation and rejection of the Tibetan language as a medium of instruction, and environmental destruction.
«No matter how the Chinese government attempts to present the cycle of self-immolations to the international community, such explanation will be met with deep skepticism so long as access to Tibetan areas, particularly where self-immolations took place, is denied to impartial observers such as members of the press, and representatives of international bodies such as the United Nations,» said Kalon Dicki Chhoyang, spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration.
Last week, the U.S. State Department in its annual report on the global human rights situation linked the Tibetan self-immolations to «repressive measures» by the Chinese authorities.
It cited as an example the occupation of monasteries by security forces, which «provoked acts of resistance among the Tibetan population, who saw it as a threat to the foundations of Tibet’s distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural identity.»
«These acts of resistance, in turn, led to enhanced attempts by [Chinese] authorities to maintain control, thus creating cycles of repression that resulted in increasingly desperate acts by Tibetans, such as a series of self-immolations by Tibetans.»