Tibet Self-Immolations Spread To Lhasa

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. There was a deadly protest in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, today. Two young men set themselves on fire. Police put the fires out quickly, but one man still died. Since March last year they have been more than 30 self immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule. But these are the first cases in Lhasa. The World's Beijing correspondent is Mary Kay Magistad. Mary Kay, tell us what happened here.

Mary Kay Magistad: So basically, two young men who worked for a Tibetan restaurant, but who were from other parts of China, ethnic Tibetan parts of China, took part in a small protest outside the Jokhang, which is the most sacred Buddhist temple for Tibetan Buddhists, set themselves on fire. Police quickly came in, doused the fire, cleaned out the whole situation inside of 15 minutes and then confiscated cellphones and cameras from anyone who was nearby.

Werman: I'm wondering would Tibetans in Lhasa dare turn the restaurant where these two young men worked into a sort of shrine? Would they try and immortalize them in some way or that wouldn't happen?

Magistad: I don't think security forces would let them. I think with each of these deaths the, you know, Tibetan community mourns the death and respects the impulse of you know, someone willing to give their life to draw attention to the situation Tibetans find themselves in. Many Tibetans feel that the Chinese government has come in, taken control of their area, dominated the economy; although a lot of money has come in, so have a lot of Han Chinese, and they take most of the jobs. Younger Tibetans who grow up learning Mandarin and are better equipped to be able to participate in the Chinese economy do better. And I have talked to Tibetans particularly in provinces like Sichuan and Hunan, who say you know, it's not ideal, but at least it's a better life economically than what my parents and grandparents. They're kind of willing to take the tradeoff. What a lot of Tibetans would ideally like is to be able to practice their religion, including worshipping the Dalai Lama, to be able to continue to learn their language and speak their language at home, and to some extent in school without the restrictions that they have faced intermittently, but increasingly because of what the Chinese government would like to do, which is to integrate Tibetans into mainstream Han Chinese culture.

Werman: In that past year or so, Mary Kay, there have been 34 such incidents like this, 20 people have died as a result of setting themselves on fire. What connects these men and women who've self immolated? Do we have any idea of this is spontaneous or organized in any way?

Magistad: The Chinese government says that it is organized and that it's the Dalai Lama who's behind all of these self immolations. The Chinese government has gone so far as to call these self immolations acts of terrorism.

Werman: Right.

Magistad: There isn't independent evidence that suggests that these were coordinated in some way. The Dalai Lama has said I have not called on these people to self immolate; in fact, I'm distressed by this, but I also honor their sacrifice. The head of the Tibetan government in exile Lobsang Sangay has said on more than one occasion that he calls on Tibetan people to avoid extreme acts and he very specifically has said in interviews, and I mean self immolation. So the encouragement is not coming publicly from either of them, however, I think that there's a certain momentum that has grown as Tibetans have seen this sort of attention that self immolations get. The Chinese government's reaction is to try to play them down, cleanup as quickly as possible, dismiss the act as being the act of someone who's either mentally imbalanced, or a criminal or a terrorist and then just move on. So you know, we're at the point now where there have been closing on three dozen self immolations and the Chinese newspapers, Chinese media treat themas a number, just another crazy Tibetan who set himself on fire.

Werman: The World's Beijing correspondent Mary Kay Magistad, thank you so much.

Magistad: Thank you, Marco.