Moments before setting himself and his niece on fire, the Tibetan monk Tulku Athup had enough serenity to say good bye over the phone to his closest family members.
“Today I feel at ease and [am] ending my life by offering butter lamps for all those Tibetans who have set themselves on fire for the cause of Tibet,” said Athup.
Immediately after hanging up the phone in his Dzogchen monastery in the Chinese province of Sichuan, Athup, 47, and his niece Atse, 25, died by self-immolation, according to the India-based exile government of Tibet.
Their deaths were reported on April 6, 2012, but the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) only added them some days ago to its official toll of self-immolations since 2009, which is now at 115, after new reports from family members emerged. Fearing closure of their monastery, monks originally told Chinese police they had died due to an “accidental fire,” the CTA said.
According to Tibet-watchers, Tibet is witnessing one of the biggest waves of political protest by self-immolation of the last 60 years. The frequency of such incidents has increased since the once-in-a-decade leadership transition of the Chinese Communist Party last November. Prayers and peaceful protests involving Tibetans from all sectors of society often follow the self-immolations.
The dramatic developments in Tibet, center of a decades-long dispute over its status within China, is in response to an intensified Chinese crackdown on Tibetan culture and religion, experts say.
Tibet is an autonomous region of the People’s Republic of China that was created in 1965 based on a provincial-level administrative area incorporated into China in 1951, following the takeover of China by Mao Tse-tung’s communists.
A recent report by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), a Washington, D.C.-based lobby group, points to a heightened level of repression since 2008, when Tibetan towns erupted in the most violent protests in nearly twenty years.
“The Chinese authorities have moved from instilling an oppressive environment in monasteries, nunneries and lay society to one that can be more accurately described as totalitarian,” says the report.
The ICT documents activities by Chinese authorities to foment “patriotic education,” such as an expanded Communist Party presence in Tibet’s rural areas, participation in work teams and restrictions in the use of Tibetan costumes and language.
The Chinese government also has intensified its campaign in Tibet against the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader in exile, including prohibitions on displaying his picture.
China blames the Dalai Lama and his followers for inciting the self-immolations. He denies this but has never asked Tibetans to stop the practice.
The Dalai Lama is portrayed by Chinese authorities as a violent separatist. However, he says he is merely seeking greater autonomy for his Himalayan homeland.
Indeed, there was a time when Tibet was independent. For almost seven centuries, the mountainous region was a remote part of the Chinese empire. Tibetans claimed independence in 1911 and governed themselves until 1950, while China struggled with foreign invasion and civil wars.
In the 1950s, Beijing reasserted control in Tibet. The conflict simmered but there was a quieter period in the 1980s when Chinese authorities allowed more cultural freedom and Tibetans seemed to have put aside their historical grievances, according to Robert Barnett, the director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University.
This all changed, says Barnett, after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Beijing started to send “patriotic education teams” to Tibetan monasteries.
Barnett says that, since then, some Chinese Communist Party leaders, among them President Xi Jinping, have been obsessed with the idea that the Soviet Union collapsed because the Russians were too lenient with minorities within their borders. The dominant Han Chinese make up well over 90 percent of China’s 1.2 billion people. Tibetans, one of 55 groups recognized by China as minorities, number an estimated 6.2 million.
According to the Columbia professor, China could easily soothe Tibetan political demands by easing its repressive policies. “There is a much lower level of violence and complications than in the conflicts of Palestine, Kosovo or Chechnya,” he says. He and other analysts argue that Chinese hardline policies in Tibet are counterproductive because separatist demands are gaining strength.
Barnett says Chinese authorities do not want to pursue a moderate approach in Tibet because of a vested interest in the Chinese political system. “The largest part of the security budget is spent on what is called stability maintenance,” he said, adding officials can pocket a lot of money by uncovering people in touch with Tibetan exiles.
Tibetan activists demand international intervention, but even though a number of governments have condemned arrests and excessive use of force by China, none supports the cause of Tibetan independence.
External knowledge of events in Tibet has been limited by a Chinese strategy to seal off the region since the 2008 protests.
With so little prospect for change in policies or more international pressure, some believe only the Dalai Lama has the ability to stop the self-immolation crisis.
Respected Tibetan writer, Naktsang Nulo, urged the Dalai Lama to appeal for a stop to the protest suicides in an online essay published two months ago. “I particularly want to request our root guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to pray for the sea of suffering in Tibet and kindly make a statement to ask the brave Tibetans not to self-immolate,” he wrote.
But even the Dalai Lama seems to doubt his influence. Speaking last week to Times Now, a major Indian television channel, he said the ultimate factor is the “individual motivation” of the protestors.