Five Tibetans set themselves on fire in China in an unprecedented string of protests ahead of the country’s once-in-a-decade leadership change, the Tibetan exile government said yesterday.
All five took place on Wednesday, the eve of a pivotal week-long Chinese Communist Party congress, which will end with the transitioning of power to Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平), who will govern for the coming decade.
Individual self-immolations to protest Chinese rule in Tibet have occurred regularly since March last year, but this is the first time such a large number of burnings have happened on the same day.
Three teenaged monks set themselves ablaze in a Tibetan-inhabited area of Aba County in Sichuan Province, the focus of previous protests. One of them died on the spot, the press department for the exile government said.
“The self-immolations in Tibet are an appeal to the international community, to the Chinese government and to the Chinese people as human beings to hear their cry for help,” said Dicki Chhoyang, information secretary for the government.
In addition to the three burnings in Sichuan, a fourth occurred in Huangnan Prefecture in Qinghai Province, where a 23-year-old woman self-immolated and a fifth happened in the Tibet Autonomous Region, the exile government said.
Two protesters are confirmed dead and the whereabouts of the others are unknown.
“These protests are aimed at sending the next generation of China’s unelected regime a clear signal that Tibetans will continue to fight for their freedom despite China’s efforts to suppress and intimidate them,” Stephanie Brigden, director of the Free Tibet campaign group, said in a statement.
The group reported four people had set themselves on fire, while the Radio Free Asia broadcaster reported five and two deaths.
A total of 68 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the protest, of which 54 have died, according to figures from the government in exile, which has been based in India since Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959.
China blames what it calls the “Dalai clique” for fomenting unrest in Tibet and orchestrating the self-immolations.
Last week, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged China to address Tibetans’ grievances saying: “I recognize Tibetans’ intense sense of frustration and despair which has led them to resort to such extreme means.”
Pillay said she was disturbed by “continuing allegations of violence against Tibetans seeking to exercise their fundamental human rights of freedom of expression, association and religion.”
China rebuffed the criticism and expressed “strong dissatisfaction.”