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Tibetan protests spread in independence fight

Sydney Morning Herald - June 22, 2012

Chinese security forces are arming themselves with guns, fire hydrants and 1960 communist propaganda as they battle a wave of self-immolations spreading across the Tibetan plateau.

Two young Tibetan men set themselves alight in Qinghai province on Wednesday, bringing the total to more than 35 over the past year. Most have died.

Tenzin Khedup, 24, died on the spot on Wednesday while his colleague, Ngawang Norphel, 22, is reportedly being treated for serious injuries.

They were carrying Tibetan flags, shouting pro-independence slogans and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, according to Radio Free Asia. Photos of the twin conflagrations were posted on the internet, despite tightening restrictions on movement and electronic communication.

Last month, the morbid form of protest arrived for the first time in Lhasa, the region's spiritual and political capital, when a 19-year-old man died and a 25-year-old man was seriously injured. They emerged from Lhasa's Mandala Hotel and ignited themselves outside Tibet's most important monastery, Jokhang.

The hotel and dozens of others have since been shut, petrol sales have been tightly restricted and dozens of people taken into custody, according to Tibetan sources.

Squads of orange-clad fire fighters, with fire trucks and four-wheeled buggies, have now joined clusters of police SWAT teams, riot police and para-military in camouflage to prevent monks and Tibetan civilians from making public spectacles of self-harm.

They are armed with fire hydrants carried in hand and concealed in rows under fire blankets as well as semi-automatic weapons and long black poles apparently designed for the safe handling of burning bodies.

Jokhang Temple has been stripped of most of its yak-butter candles, replaced by fluorescent lights, while identification checks are now required to enter monasteries and other public spaces.

While Communist Party officials have described the self-immolations as a form of terrorism, others argue that the notion of national martyrdom had been imported with the communists in the 1950s and '60s.

"This kind of thing has never happened in the Tibetan tradition before," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibet historian at the University of British Columbia. "It traces back to communist propaganda figures, such as Lei Feng."

The saturation security measures are now juxtaposed with posters urging police to emulate Lei Feng, as part of a nationwide propaganda campaign to cultivate a sense of national sacrifice.

Lei Feng was a mythical cult figure, selflessly devoted to Chairman Mao, who was said to have been killed by a falling telephone poll while directing a military vehicle to reverse on to a road.

In London, the Dalai Lama expressed hope that change would come to Tibet when Beijing's leaders were forced to respond to Chinese aspirations for freedom and democracy. He said Chinese authorities were not interested in genuine dialogue. "I think they feel it is easier just to suppress," he said.

Tibetans who left suicide notes have addressed fellow Tibetans rather than Chinese authorities, perhaps reflecting a view that dialogue is futile.

"We could not contribute significantly towards the Tibetan religion and culture and we could not [help bring about] economic benefits to Tibetans," said the suicide note of Wednesday's victims, according to Radio Free Asia.

"Therefore, we have decided to self-immolate with the hope that His Holiness the Dalai Lama may live long and return to Tibet as soon as possible... Everyone should unite to uphold the cause of the Tibetan race and nationality."

Dr Shakya said: "They are trying to mobilise Tibetan people and warn of the danger of the disappearance of traditional culture."

Western journalists have long been stopped from freely visiting and reporting on most parts of the Tibetan plateau. A series of new travel restrictions have also slashed foreign tourism to a trickle in Lhasa and the surrounding Tibet Autonomous Region, as the inner core of the Tibetan plateau is officially known.

Most who have set themselves on fire have had connections with the Kirti Monastery, in Sichuan province's Ngaba prefecture, where the Communist Party has been imposing the types of restrictions and ideological guidance that had previously been confined to the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

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