Xinhua Insight: Truth behind blaze: how self-immolations affect Tibetans

2013-02-02 13:28:08 GMT2013-02-02 21:28:08(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

By Xinhua writers Li Huizi, Jiang Weichao and Zhang Chunxiao

GANNAN, Gansu, Feb. 2 (Xinhua) -- As his black cat leans to him, Chirarab sits on a bed with his legs crossed, wondering why his son chose to end his life in a pre-meditated self-immolation.

"He is so foolish. I did not educate my son well," says the 63-year-old Tibetan veterinarian.

His son, 31-year-old Tsekho, did not get along well with his wife prior to his death. He wanted to do business and make money and asked his father for start-up money. However, Chirarab refused and scolded him, as the father worried his alcoholic son would squander the money in excessive gambling and drinking.

After hearing that self-immolating could make him a "hero," Tsekho told his friends, "I rather burn myself than live like this."

He lit himself on fire beside a bridge in his village on Nov. 29, 2012. Two of his fiends fed the fire by pouring gasoline onto a woolen blanket and throwing the blanket to Tsekho. Another two villagers sent photos of his self-immolation overseas, along with his detailed personal information.

Some foreign media later branded Tsekho a "Tibetan martyr" protesting the growing influence of Han Chinese in the Tibetan plateau. They also used his story as an excuse to attract international attention to the so-called "Tibet issue" and the ultimate pursuit of "Tibet independence," a campaign spearheaded by the Tibetan government-in-exile, with the Dalai Lama as its spiritual leader.

Villagers carried Tsekho's corpse to his parents' home and gave Chirarab the grievous news of the death of his only son.


Chirarab lives in Luchu County, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in northwest China's Gansu Province, located in the eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau. Gannan borders Tibetan-inhabited areas in Qinghai and Sichuan provinces.

Copy-cat self-immolations spread in the border area of Qinghai, Sichuan and Gansu provinces last year, mostly involving young people under the age of 30.

Sangdegye, 18, lies in a bed in the Burn Department of the Gansu Provincial Hospital in the provincial capital of Lanzhou after having his leg amputated from the knee down last year.

The young man from Gannan's Xiahe County recalls buying three liters of gasoline and a handful of painkillers at a village store on Dec. 2, 2012.

He drove a borrowed motorcycle toward the nearby Bora Temple. Dressed in his Tibetan robe, he doused himself in gasoline. After the fire broke out, he ran to the temple. But he forgot to take the painkillers he had purchased, and in his immense pain, he took off his fiery clothes and caught the attention of nearby police.

Police investigations show that Sangdegye was introverted and believed in the Dalai Lama clique's saying that self-immolations were a sacrifice for the great Tibetan undertaking. One of his friends set himself alight and died on May 27, 2012, a move that shocked Sangdegye.

Sangdegye used to watch Voice of America (VOA) Tibetan-language programs, and says he adored the self-immolators VOA reported on, as they were like "heroes."

"I was startled when I learned that my son set himself ablaze. Although such things have happened recently, I never thought that it could fall on my family," Tsering Tokyi, Sangdegye's father, says.

His mother Wandetso rests her head on her knees when she talks about her son. She quietly recites Buddhist sutras and rubs her prayer beads, but later the sutras will give way to sobs.

"We don't know how to move on," says Namgyal, Sangdegye's grandfather.

A Tibetan official with the Gannan prefecture government says the Dalai Lama clique often chooses Tibetans facing financial pressures who have received little formal education, young people or those caught in family feuds as the target of inciting self-immolations. Instigators have sometimes told potential self-immolators that the Dalai Lama will "pray for you after your death."

Tibetan Buddhism's traditional belief in the afterlife also plays a role in self-immolations. The monk, who fled Tibet for India after a failed uprising in 1959, once said those who commit self-immolation in this life will be reborn in the afterlife.

"It is sheer destruction of humanity," says the Tibetan official who asked not to be named. "Why did you goad 17- or 18-year-olds to self-immolate? Why didn't you self-immolate?"


Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture boasts 121 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, the most renowned being the Labrang Monastery, one of the six great temples of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism.

The Hezuo Monastery, a Geluk monastery founded in 1673, currently holds 147 monks.

On the morning of Jan. 12, or "Dec. 1" on the Chinese lunar calendar, a phalanx of more than 40 monks from the Hezuo Monastery were rehearsing a religious dance for a grand Buddhist ceremony scheduled for the 14th day of the lunar January, or Feb. 23. Their chanting broke the morning silence.

It was a Saturday. Children in the neighborhood came in twos and threes to play in the monastery. At the sight of the sutra hall, they went in and knelt down to worship.

Believers -- Tibetans and Han people alike -- circled the white tower erected near the monastery, chanting prayers. Their bicycles and scooters were parked nearby.

There were no traces of the fire that cost a Tibetan woman her life about six months earlier.

On Aug. 7, 2012, Trakhutso, 26, enveloped in flames, rolled on the hillside northwest of the white tower, murmuring, "Let me die. Let me die."

The fire was put out by another Tibetan woman who had been circling the tower.

Soon after, a monk from the Hezuo Monastery named Chophel arrived at the site. He took pictures of Trakhutso and with the help of some other monks, he carried her to the office of the monastery's management committee.

He neither called police nor sent the injured, but still alive, woman to the hospital, thus delaying Trakhutso's due rescue.

According to Chophel's confession to police, he used his mobile phone to transmit four pictures of the self-immolator, the names of her and her parents and "her statements about the return of the Dalai Lama and freedom of Tibetans" to people abroad.

The four pictures were exactly what some foreign media used in their reports on the incident.

Chophel has since been arrested on suspicion of intentional homicide.

Police found that Trakhutso, who had a problem with her left leg, had sour relations with her husband and his family. More often than not, she was subjected to blame and bullying from her mother-in-law.

During the Spring Festival in 2012, Trakhutso's sister-in-law praised self-immolators in a conversation, saying, "How awesome! What they did was for the return of the Dalai Lama and the undertaking of the Tibetans!"

Four days before Trakhutso ignited herself, she had a physical exam, in which she was diagnosed with a common gynecological disease. It was then that the idea of giving up her life took hold.

Trakhutso went back to her parents' home on Aug. 6. She heard her father say, "Self-immolators, even if killed, are so lucky to have the Dalai Lama atone for their sins with scripture chanting."

Trakhutso got carried away by these statements.

"The belief that people who burn themselves to death will have their souls released from purgatory and attain bliss in the afterlife is never part of the Buddhist creed," explains 62-year-old Sodzamtsang Rinpoche from the Hezuo Monastery.

"Self-immolation is not a heroic act, but a stupid one that misinterprets Buddhist doctrine."

But Sangye Gyatso, a 26-year-old resident of Duohe Village, Nawu Township in the city of Hezuo, the seat of the prefectural government of Gannan, saw it differently.

After Trakhutso died, Sangye Gyatso told his friends over drinks, "[The city of] Hezuo has risen to fame because of a woman. For Duohuo [village], it will be because of me."

According to his confession to police, he and several friends used their cell phones to spread pictures of burning Trakhutso. He was also a regular viewer of the VOA's Tibetan-language programming.

Police have confirmed that Sangye Gyatso installed a satellite receiver in his house and used to watch VOA Tibetan-language programs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Broadcasts about "Tibet independence" and self-immolations had a great impact on him and his friends.

On Oct. 6, 2012, Sangye Gyatso died in the fire he ignited for himself.

Police investigations show that Sangye Gyatso was handled in accordance with the law in 2007 for repeated acts of theft, which were carried out with the help of others. He had been without a formal job for a long time.

Khyi Gyatso, 33, a village friend of Sangye Gyatso's, had been a monk at the local Duohe Monastery before leaving China through illegal means to become a monk in an Indian monastery in 2000.

As a key member of the "Tibetan Youth Congress," Khyi Gyatso introduced Sangye Gyatso to ideas about "Tibet independence" during his stay in China in 2011.

After returning to India in September 2011, Khyi Gyatso continued to contact Sangye Gyatso by phone and email, urging the latter to "contribute to the cause of Tibetans and improve his status and that of his family" by following the pattern of the "heroic deed" of self-immolation.

In January 2012, Khyi Gyatso and Gonpo Konchoghu, another member of the "Tibetan Youth Congress" as well as a former monk at Duohe Monastery, held a meeting in India with around 30 monks from Gansu's Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, who were in India at the time for a so-called "religious session" held by the Dalai Lama clique. The monks included 41-year-old Kalzang Gyatso and 32-year-old Gonpo Je.

The meeting was about planning the self-immolations of Tibetans in China.

In April 2012, Gonpo Konchoghu illegally entered China and urged Sangye Gyatso to self-immolate, promising to send the latter's picture overseas after his self-immolation and request that the Dalai Lama arrange a religious session for him in India.

On Oct. 6, 2012, Sangye Gyatso phoned three people, including Gonpo Je, about the time and place of his self-immolation.

After Sangye Gyatso set himself on fire, Tashi Gyatso and Gonpo Je, among others who were all there waiting, took photos of the self-immolation process and quickly sent them overseas.

That afternoon, Khyi Gyatso, who was then overseas, released the "news" about the self-immolation. Shortly thereafter, the Dalai Lama 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.

Gansu police have apprehended seven principal suspects, including Kalzang Gyatso, Gonpo Je and Tashi Gyatso.

Chinese police have also requested that police in relevant countries help investigate Gonpo Konchoghu via channels for international police cooperation.

But these efforts have failed to stop the flames of self-immolations from spreading further and claiming more lives.

On Oct. 23, 2012, Togye Rinchen, a 58-year-old Tibetan villager, set himself on fire near a shopping center in Gannan's Xiahe County. Those who incited the self-immolation also provided pictures to the VOA.

On Jan. 31, six ethnic Tibetans were sentenced to three to 12 years in prison for their roles in Togye Rinchen's self-immolation by the Xiahe County People's Court.

Located more than 70 kilometers from the city of Hezuo, the prefectural capital, Xiahe County is considered the prefecture's religious center.

After spotting the incident, police officers put out the fire, with Togye Rinchen still showing signs of life.

As police officers worked to rescue the self-immolator, some monks and people in the crowd attempted to carry him into the monastery. They attacked and injured the officers, hampering their rescue efforts.

"When I saw the self-immolator's left hand still moving, I grabbed an extinguisher and soaked quilt and tried to save him," Liu Yaguo, a police officer from the county's public security bureau, recalls. "But a crowd was already gathering. A woman tried to stop me by lashing me with a belt and another tall man beside beckoned more people over."


Urigtsang, a young Living Buddha of the Hezuo Monastery, says self-immolations go against Buddhist doctrine and Chinese law.

Monks should focus their attention on practicing Buddhism and cherishing life, and then they will have a good afterlife, he explains, adding that according to Buddhist scriptures, if someone ends his or her life by self-immolating, his or her soul can not be reincarnated.

"Self-immolations are individual behaviors and have nothing to do with monasteries and the general public," Urigtsang says.

After being instigated by others, some monks have deliberately hindered efforts to save self-immolators, which is also their personal choice, he adds.

According to the 1994 UN declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism, criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular communities for political purposes are not justifiable under any circumstances, no matter the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.

From his hospital bed, Sangdegye says he was too young to tell right from wrong and tended to act on impulse.

"I really regret it," he says, adding that he wants to get artificial limbs in the future so he will be able to walk.

After his failed self-immolation on Dec. 2, he was sent to a hospital and received a "critically ill" diagnosis, as there were burns across a large surface of his body as well as in his respiratory system. After four major surgeries, his organic function gradually returned to normal.

"At first, I thought I was a hero, but now, I am an idiot," he wrote in his notebook by a picture of a sunflower.

Doctors and nurses accompany him around the clock, and when the nurses change his dressings, he always thanks them, says Deng Jinju, China's top burn care expert who supervises Sangdegye's medical treatment. The Gansu Provincial Hospital covered his medical fees.

"I feel sad when I see him, as he is at the tender age of 18," Deng says.

Namgyal, Sangdegye's grandfather, hopes that other families will not have to deal with such a tragedy.

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