New York Times
By SHARON LaFRANIERE  January 9, 2012

BEIJING — Three Tibetan monks in central China set themselves on fire this weekend, raising to 15 the number of suicides in the last year by Buddhist clergy members protesting aspects of Beijing’s rule in Tibet.

The deaths suggest that self-immolation is gaining favor as a form of political protest for Tibetan clergy. And they underscore the challenges the Chinese authorities face in controlling more than five million ethnic Tibetans living in what China calls the Tibet autonomous region and adjacent Sichuan and Qinghai Provinces.

China’s central government has cracked down hard on religious activism in Tibet since ethnic riots in 2008 killed 19 people, many of them Han Chinese migrants, severely embarrassing rulers in the months leading to the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Human-rights activists say that hundreds of Tibetans were arrested afterward, and that some of them died in custody.

Western journalists are largely barred from traveling to the region. But reports by others indicate that monasteries and other gathering places have been placed under strict surveillance.

Analysts who sympathize with ethnic Tibetans’ criticism of Beijing’s conduct say the recent deaths underscore that the crackdown has failed to quell Tibetans’ demands for greater religious and political latitude. While most suicide victims were young, Sopa, who killed himself Sunday morning in Qinghai Province, was a 42-year-old senior clergyman. Like many Tibetans, he went by one name.

His death indicates that suicide is increasingly accepted as an expression of political opposition among Tibetans and that the government’s response has made it more popular, Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in Hong Kong for Human Rights Watch, said in a telephone interview.

“We clearly see this form of protest is resonating within the Tibetan community,” he said. “The government is trying to prevent these incidents by strengthening control, but too much repression and control is what provokes these acts.”

Chinese officials have said that the suicides are a result of overseas plots. The state news agency Xinhua said last month that the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, and his supporters were using suicides to pressure the government into political concessions.

While the Dalai Lama has deplored the suicides, he has also commended the victims. “There is courage, very strong courage,” he told the BBC in November. But he asked, “How much effect?”

Zhang Yun, a researcher with the government-controlled China Tibetology Research Center, argued in a December article in Xinhua that self-immolators are defiling Buddhism. “These self-immolations not only brought into question whether these monasteries had obeyed the fundamental precepts of Buddhism, but also whether they occupy the bottom moral rung of being human,” he wrote.

Both sympathizers and critics agree that Tibetan clergy’s suicides need an audience for any political effect. China’s government censors have blacked out virtually any mention of the latest suicides, but Tibetans are passing word among themselves.

On Friday, two monks died by self-immolation in a county near Aba, a major Buddhist center in Sichuan. Most of last year’s suicides took place in that province, said Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan essayist and blogger.

On Sunday morning Mr. Sopa, a senior monk in a monastery roughly 60 miles away in Qinghai, posted leaflets demanding freedom for Tibetans, according to Ms. Woeser. He drank kerosene, doused himself and set himself alight. That evening, up to 1,000 protesters converged on the county’s government headquarters, demanding the return of his remains, she said. Eventually, she said, the police turned over the body to Mr. Sopa’s family.

Although the Tibetans there seem quiet now, Ms. Woeser said, “I am really worried.”

“Since the first self-immolation case in 2009, the government has not only not relaxed its control, it has tightened its grip,” she said. “Now in Tibetan areas, people are treating these victims of self-sacrifice as heroes.”

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