Wed, Dec 23, 2015 - Page 6 News List

FEATURE: Tibetan monks shy away from self-immolation

AFP, ABA, Tibet

Tibetan monks play with a soccer ball at Kirti Monastery in Aba, Tibet, on Dec. 9.

Photo: AFP

Adrak’s last words before Chinese police officers dragged him away were: “May the Dalai Lama live for 10,000 years.”

The 20-year-old Tibetan monk was carrying the spiritual leader’s portrait as he walked down the main street outside his monastery, also calling for freedom for Tibet. The picture fell to the ground as police set upon him and when several onlookers joined his calls, they, too, were beaten and taken away, according to witnesses and former monks currently in exile.

However, the protest did not play out like so many previous ones — Adrak did not self-immolate, or even try to, as monks in the pasts have often done. The burnings have slowed to a trickle, replaced by less incendiary solo demonstrations after what monks say is a campaign of intimidation by the government, mainly targeting family members and friends of those who killed themselves.

Nothing has been heard of Adrak or three fellow monks since they mounted four such actions in as many days.

Their Kirti monastery in Aba has been at the center of the 143 known cases of Tibetans setting themselves on fire — most of them dying — to oppose China’s policies in the region and call for the return of the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate.

About one-third of the total happened in Aba, in a region China claims is part of the southwestern province of Sichuan. Of those, more than half were current or former monks and nuns.

“I can choose to destroy this body for my ideas, but I can’t make a decision like that for others,” said a 24-year-old monk under the golden roof of the temple. “Many monks do not want to endanger their families.”

The town’s main road running near the temple is colloquially known as “Martyrs’ Street,” but there have been only seven self-immolations so far this year, according to rights groups.

At least 98 Tibetans have been detained, imprisoned or have disappeared because of alleged connections with someone who set themselves on fire, according to advocacy group the International Campaign for Tibet, which said the number might be much higher.

One man was condemned to death in connection with his wife’s self-immolation after authorities accused him of murdering her. Another monk was given a suspended death sentence, according to media reports — a sentence normally commuted to life in prison, for “inciting” others to burn themselves.

Observers say the model of collective punishment is not new, rather a throwback to Communist and imperial eras.

SECURITY OPERATIONS

“You create security by making other people responsible for one person’s actions,” said Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies Program at Columbia University. “This threat is increasingly being used throughout China’s security operations in Tibetan areas.”

Chinese authorities keep Aba under tight control — Internet service to the region has been cut since Adrak and his fellow monks’ actions in September — and visits by international media are extremely rare, with police checkpoints on roads leading to the town.

Armed police no longer stand guard outside the Kirti Monastery’s main entrance to intimidate the 3,000 monks within, as was the norm before, while cinderblock walls hastily erected at the height of the self-immolations to ensure only one entrance and exit point have been partially dismantled.

However, a 35m-tall metal pole remains in the central courtyard, looming over every other building in the complex and festooned with floodlights and four rotating cameras, giving authorities a 360o view of the monks’ outdoor lives.

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