Two young men set themselves on fire on Friday near a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in southwest China amid rumors that dozens of monks were ready to “sacrifice their lives,” rights groups said.
The two — named as Choepel and Khayang — were former monks from Sichuan Province’s Kirti monastery, the scene of repeated protests against perceived religious oppression, the London-based Free Tibet said in statement.
The incidents — confirmed by another rights group with contacts in the region — take the number of people reported to have set themselves on fire to seven this year.
Free Tibet, an activist group, said there were unconfirmed reports that Choepel, 19, had died while the condition of Khayang, 18, was not known.
China’s Xinhua news agency later reported the two were receiving treatment at a local hospital and quoted a county government spokesman as saying their injuries were not life-threatening. It gave their ages as 18 and 20.
The former monks were wearing street clothes when they set themselves alight on Friday morning in the center of Aba town.
“Rumors are circulating that dozens of monks are now ready to sacrifice their lives,” Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said in a statement.
Brigden said there were reports that pamphlets had been distributed around the monastery and market place in Aba warning of further deaths if “Chinese policies at the monastery and in the town continue.”
Calls to the government and police in Aba went unanswered.
The Tibetan Buddhist monastery has been the scene of repeated protests, according to rights groups, and previous self-immolations in the region have triggered a crackdown.
The number of monks at Kirti monastery has fallen to about 600 from 2,500 in March due to “compulsory patriotic re-education, detentions and expulsions,” Free Tibet said, citing sources in the region.
Brigden said Choepel had been expelled from the monastery in March. It was not known why Khayang had left.
“Local sources report that there are still high numbers of security personnel in the town and increased numbers of soldiers billeted outside. Locals describe the town as being ‘completely under control,’” she said.
Three monks from Kirti monastery have attempted self-immolation in recent weeks in apparent protests against perceived religious repression. Another two reported cases in the same Tibetan region happened in August and March.
In August, China jailed three monks for between 10 and 13 years for helping a young monk kill himself in March, raising criticism from the US and rights groups.
Many Tibetans in China are angry about what they view as increasing domination by the country’s majority Han ethnic group.
China, however, says that Tibetan living standards have improved with billions of dollars in Chinese investment.
Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) — another rights group — said “aggressive troops” had occupied Kirti making it “almost impossible for the monks to carry out their practice and live as normal human beings.”
“We need to look deeper to understand what is driving these young monks to sacrifice themselves,” ICT spokeswoman Kate Saunders said. “It may be linked to what many Kirti monks will be experiencing as a living death under oppression.”
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