Tibetans still choosing fiery deaths in quest for freedom

Beijing, China - A 35-year-old nun, Qiu Xiang, died on Wednesday after setting herself on fire, the 11th Tibetan Buddhist to die by self-immolation this year in a continuing protest against Chinese religious persecution and occupation of their homeland.

Qiu's death came the day after publication of a United Nations report describing a continuing crackdown by Chinese security forces against Tibetan Buddhists in monasteries in southwestern China in which hundreds of monks and nuns have either been arrested, tortured or simply disappeared.

The report by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief called on Beijing to stop the repression and instead "listen to and address the legitimate grievances of the monastic community."

The Beijing government brushed off the criticism and at first denied any responsibility for the arrest or disappearance of about 2,000 monks from a collection of monasteries in Sichuan province. But it later admitted that 300 monks have been taken for "patriotic re-education."

The report also criticized proposed revisions to the Chinese criminal code which will legalize the already common practice of "forced disappearances" by the authorities.

The fount of the protests and focus of the Chinese crackdown is the Kirti monastery and its 35 or so associated smaller monasteries in the predominantly Tibetan ethnic region of Sichuan province.

But the protests by the monks and nuns as well as ordinary Tibetans stem from an uprising against Chinese rule which started in the Tibetan capital Lhasa in March 2008.

This protest against China's 1950 invasion and occupation of Tibet quickly spread to areas of provinces now administered as part of China where there are sizable Tibetan populations, including the Kirti monastery area of Sichuan.

A report last month by Human Rights Watch says Chinese security forces shot and killed 10 Tibetans around the monasteries during those 2008 protests.

It was apparently to mark the third anniversary of that crackdown that Phuntsog, a 20-year-old monk at Kirti Monastery, on March 16 doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.

In the following weeks Chinese authorities detained about 2,000 of the 2,500 monks known to be living in the Kirti monasteries, but this did not stop the protest suicides. Eight monks and two nuns in Sichuan have self-immolated since March. In all cases, before dying they have shouted protests against China's occupation of Tibet and called for the return of the Dalai Lama, the exiled religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of inciting the suicides, especially since last month when he led a memorial service at the Tibetan exiles' capital, Dharamsala in northern India, for the dead monks and nuns.

The Dalai Lama strongly denies this and the Tibetan government-in-exile accuses Beijing of driving the Tibetans to desperation with its repressive policies.

The Dalai Lama fled into exile in 1959 as Beijing's troops put down an uprising by Tibetans against Chinese rule.

Since then Beijing has constantly accused the Dalai Lama of supporting independence and armed insurrections.

He denies this and says he supports only true cultural and religious autonomy for Tibetans within China.

Years of tentative contacts have failed to produce any resolution of the dispute.

But many Tibetans now see the matter coming to a head as the Dalai Lama, who is 76, approaches the end of his life.

The usual process is that on the death of the Dalai Lama a search will commence for his reincarnation.

Beijing has already moved to try to control who becomes the next Dalai Lama by suborning or appointing its own junior lamas who will be responsible for the search.

The Dalai Lama has responded by formally abandoning his role as political leader and remaining only the religious head of Tibetan Buddhism.

There is speculation he might try to further foil Beijing's schemes before he dies by naming his reincarnation.

The Dalai Lama has tried to ensure the continuation and legitimacy of the Tibetan cause by promoting democracy in the government in exile.

Lobsang Sangay, a 43-year-old former research fellow at Harvard Law School, was recently elected prime minister of the democratically elected government.

On Wednesday, as news came through of the 11th death by selfimmolation, Sangay was in Washington urging the United States to press for a further international investigation of what is happening at the Kirti monasteries.