China Arrests 7 in New Effort to Stop Tibetan Self-Immolations

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BEIJING -- The authorities in northwest China have detained seven people they say organized the fatal self-immolation of a Tibetan villager in October, photographed his burning body and then sent the images abroad.

The arrests, announced Tuesday by Xinhua, the official news agency, suggest that the Chinese government is increasing the use of its newest strategy against the politically motivated suicides in Tibetan areas of China: punishing friends and relatives of those who self-immolate.

The Xinhua report blamed a Tibetan advocacy group in India for convincing the villager, Sangye Gyatso, a 27-year-old father of two, that self-immolation was a "heroic deed" and that it would improve his family's standing.

A spokesman for the group, the Tibetan Youth Congress, rejected the accusations, calling them "ridiculous."

With the accumulated toll of self-immolations approaching 100, Beijing has been scrambling to find effective deterrents to such acts, which began in 2009 as a desperate attempt to publicize what many Tibetans consider heavy-handed Chinese policies. In the early months of the crisis, officials sought to demonize self-immolators as terrorists or mentally deranged people. The authorities also locked down the most restive towns and monasteries, preventing monks from leaving or foreign journalists from entering.

Such measures appear to have done little to quell the protests, prompting officials to try new tactics. In Tongren County, in Qinghai Province, the authorities recently issued new regulations that permanently revoke public benefits for the families of self-immolators and cancel government-financed projects in their hometowns. If a monk or nun visits the home of a self-immolator, their monastery is to be shut down as punishment, according to the rules.

In recent weeks, more than a dozen people across the region have been charged with inciting self-immolations or accused of spreading information about the incidents via text message or e-mail. Last month, eight people were detained on accusations of trying to publicize a self-immolation near a government office in Luchu County in Gansu Province. Among those arrested, exile groups say, was a relative of the deceased.

In October, four young Tibetans in Sichuan Province were given sentences ranging from 7 to 11 years; two were convicted of encouraging their friend to self-immolate, and the other two for leaking news of the incident to "outside contacts."

In the most recent case in Gansu Province, Xinhua said one of the seven detained men, a Buddhist monk named Khyi Gyatso, had joined the Tibetan Youth Congress in Dharamsala, India, after escaping in 2000. But the monk, Xinhua said, stayed in touch with his boyhood friend, Sangye Gyatso, and persuaded him through phone calls and e-mails to "contribute to the cause of Tibetans" by setting himself on fire.

Xinhua said Sangye Gyatso -- whom it described as a convicted thief, perennially unemployed and a chronic womanizer -- fell under the monk's sway. He later told three friends about the time and place of his self-immolation so they could take photographs and share them with overseas groups, including representatives of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader regarded by China as a subversive. "Shortly thereafter," Xinhua said, "the Dalai clique launched a high-profile 'propaganda' campaign on the well-orchestrated incident, claiming there was a 'humanitarian crisis' in China and calling for the international community to interfere."

Tenzin Norsang, joint secretary of Tibetan of Youth Congress in Dharamsala, said the group had no connection to Sangye Gyatso's death, adding that the intense government restrictions and monitoring limited communication between Tibetans in China and abroad.

"Those who are self-immolating have been living under Chinese rule for more than 50 years -- they don't need anyone to tell them what to do," he said. "Instead of blaming outsiders, the Chinese government could end the self-immolations by re-examining and changing their own repressive policies."


This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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