The Chinese government has organized volunteer firefighting brigades at Tibetan monasteries, Xinhua news agency has reported, as the death toll from protest self-immolations in ethnically Tibetan areas continues to climb.
At least nine people have burned themselves to death this month alone, but the Xinhua article, “Firemen in Monk’s Robes,” does not explicitly mention the self-immolations.
The article describes a new 18-man fire team at the 538-monk Tisannyi monastery in Aba Prefecture, Sichuan Province.
“They are responsible for regular safety checks, patrols and teaching other monks about firefighting, but most important of all they are expected to give first aid in emergencies,” Aba fire brigade chief Liao Jun (廖軍) told Xinhua.
According to Tibetan rights groups, at least 77 Tibetans have set fire to themselves since 2009 — 64 of them died.
The frequency spiked during China’s 18th party congress. Two Tibetans — one in Gansu Province and another in Qinghai Province — self-immolated on Tuesday last week.
“There is a lot of paranoia among officials,” said Tsering Tsomo, president of the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Dharamsala. “They know something like this can happen anytime.”
She added that Tibetans in many parts of western China need to present two government-issued documents when purchasing flammable liquids.
The wave of self-immolations has been concentrated around the Kirti monastery, a 600-year-old temple in Aba Prefecture, where monks sparked large-scale anti-Chinese riots last spring.
“It looks to me like, on the face of it, that the self-immolations are really spreading — it’s not just about Kirti monastery anymore, it’s about the influence that Kirti has had on other, smaller monasteries,” Tsomo said.
Government officials helped Tisannyi monastery set up its fire brigade in April, according to Xinhua, “following fires that have broken out with increasing frequency in recent years.”
The government has replaced Tisannyi’s old electrical wiring, given the monastery new fire extinguishers and “fire prevention education boards,” and built a 1,000m3 reservoir in the area.
The local government has since designated three more of the prefecture’s monasteries — Dagcha, Mewa and Changlie — as “pilot temples” in its fire prevention program.
Aba Prefecture has been the site of almost half of all Tibetan self-immolations since 2009.
When reached by telephone, a man at Markang’s public security bureau recommended contacting the town’s fire department for details. A man at direct inquiries said the Markang fire department’s number was “confidential.”
According to the New York-based International Campaign for Tibet, two Tibetans burned themselves to death on Saturday in Rebkong, Qinghai Province. Authorities have stepped up the area’s military presence and warned locals against attending cremation ceremonies for protesters. Yet “hundreds, sometimes thousands” of Tibetans have shown up anyway, according to the organization.
“We are looking for the new Chinese leadership to urgently reduce the dominance of the security apparatus in Tibet, a factor that has intensified tensions and dangers, increasing the risk of more self-immolations,” said Mary Beth Markey, the campaign’s president.