BEIJING: An unprecedented spate of self-immolations in Tibetan areas reflects growing desperation and may spread unless Beijing softens its stance, scholars and observers say.
Last Friday, two teenagers tried to burn themselves to death in a Tibetan area in south-west Sichuan province, bringing the tally of such suicide attempts to seven since March. There had been only two such cases previously, in 2009 and 1998.
'I expect this situation will continue to stew until Chinese officials develop greater sensitivity to Tibetan concerns,' said law and human rights expert Michael Davis of the University of Hong Kong.
While Beijing has generally improved living standards in Tibet since taking over the region in 1951, it has also restricted freedom of the Tibetans, who are barred even from possessing a photo of their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
In the 1980s, when China was undertaking economic reforms and its leaders were more open-minded, they would have responded to the suicides by investigating and modifying policies, noted Columbia University's Tibet scholar Robert Barnett.
But now, Beijing blames external conspiracies and reacts by meting out tougher punishment instead, he said, adding: 'Until this approach is reversed, the cycle of increasing police provocation and Tibetan resentment seems likely to continue.'
Observers say the suicides are linked to long-term frustration over Chinese policies like the launch of personal attacks against the Dalai Lama in the press, as well as increased militarisation across the Tibetan steppes since March 2008, when the worst unrest in decades broke out.
A more immediate trigger is the move to tighten controls at Kirti Monastery in Sichuan's Aba county (Ngaba in Tibetan), where unrest broke out in 2008 as well as earlier this year.
'They stationed officials in the monastery, shut down all phone lines and the Internet, and intensified 'reeducation' campaign sessions, which basically amounts to an institutionalised form of psychological torture,' said Mr Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of the New York-based Students For A Free Tibet.
All but one of the seven who tried to kill themselves are monks or former monks from the monastery, where up to 80 per cent of its 2,500 monks had been moved elsewhere, said some reports.
While self-immolation has been notable in Vietnam, India and South Korea, all countries with large Buddhist populations, cases involving Tibetans were rare until now.
Suicide has no place in Tibetan Buddhism and is considered a sin, said Beijing-based Tibetan scholar Tanzen Lhundup. Even during earlier centuries of Buddhist persecution, self-immolations were unheard of, he said.
'It's very scary if people start copying the acts,' said Professor Lhundup of the Chinese Centre for Tibetan Studies in Beijing, adding that the self-immolations may lead down a slippery slope towards greater extremism.
In China, the fiery suicides have not caused much stir, in part because of censorship. Also, there are just too many protests in the country - 180,000 last year, according to one estimate.
Some media commentators see the suicides as an orchestrated move to gain global sympathy for the Tibetan cause.
Columnist Sun Jiaye from the independent Hong Kong daily, Ming Pao, asked how news of the suicide bids in a remote place like Aba county could be disseminated within hours by the Tibetan activists.
And yesterday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs accused the 'Dalai Lama clique' of failing to condemn the acts and of fanning them instead.
'We feel that such moves to advance the cause of splittism using ways that harm human life are a kind of terrorism. Not only does it violate morality, it also goes against Buddhism, including Tibetan Buddhism,' said spokesman Liu Weimin at a routine press conference.
The Dalai Lama has not spoken on this issue, but the Karmapa, one of the most senior Tibetan monks, told Time magazine: 'Monks take a vow that says they are not allowed to end their lives. But on the other hand, these actions are not for an individual, they are for a people.'
Previous self-immolation attempts in China - not just by Tibetans - have had mixed results.
Only the odd case or two led to some justice. Jiangxi farmer Ye Zhongcheng died when he set himself ablaze last year to protest against forced eviction. It was only when his plight was spread by social media that the case sparked public outrage and led to the sacking of the officials involved.
In the case of Tibet, activists say the suicides reflect deep desperation, noting that those involved were in the prime of their lives. The oldest was 29.
They could have also felt a sense of urgency engendered by the progress that other places, especially the Arab countries, have made towards freedom and democracy, said Mr Dorjee.
In Tunisia earlier this year, 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire, triggering sweeping changes across the Arab world.