March has long been a tense time for China and its Tibetan areas. It is a month marked by key anniversaries in the Tibetans' struggle for more freedom. And now there is added concern, because over the past year, at least 26 monks, nuns and ordinary people have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese government policies. More than half of those self-immolations have occurred since January.
Security is tight in parts of China where many of the self-immolations have occurred, and authorities continue to maintain a large presence there.
Yet, even with that beefed up security, the self-immolations continue.
China blames overseas groups and Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. It has also portrayed those who have set themselves on fire as outcasts and criminals.
Wu Zegang is the head of Aba prefecture in Sichuan province.
“There is a great deal of evidence that the Dalai clique and the Tibetan independence forces are planning and supporting acts of self-immolation, inciting more clerics and lay people to engage in copycat incidents. They destroy lives and use this twisted means to incite separatism through these acts of violence and terrorism.”
China has poured massive funds into raising education and living standards and building up infrastructure in Tibetan parts of the country. From its perspective, stability should be the norm.
But Thupten Jinpa, the Dalai Lama’s English-language translator, says China’s heavy-handed approach to Tibetan areas and persistent oppression of Tibetan culture and religion is the source of the problem. He spoke with VOA via Skype.
“It wouldn’t cost that much for China to give something that would make the majority of Tibetans satisfied and be convinced that there is a future for the Tibetan community within the larger People’s Republic of China.”
What China is doing, he adds, is only encouraging the protests to continue.
Others say the self-immolations should stop now and argue Tibetans can do more to help their cause by staying alive.
Arjia Rinpoche is a senior Tibetan religious leader. He spoke with VOA via Skype.
"I would appeal to those people in the future to encourage their friends and family members and spiritual leaders to be sure to encourage or educate their students to stop this action now. We’ve already shown that's our great bravery, so only this way can we change our reality.”
One way China could help change that reality, he adds, is by taking as flexible an approach to incidents in Tibetan areas as it has to unrest in other parts of the country. And instead of ratcheting up security and rhetoric, he says, China should hold local authorities accountable and do more to treat the situation in Tibetan areas equally.