REPORTING FROM NEW DELHI -- A Tibetan set himself on fire Monday before running several hundred feet down a busy New Delhi street, suffering critical burns in advance of a visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao.
The protester, identified by Tibetan activists as Janphel Yeshi, 27, attempted the self-immolation at Jantar Mantar, an open area where rallies and demonstrations are often held. Media reports, citing witnesses, said Yeshi yelled as he ran along the road dressed in a sweater and dark trousers, black smoke pouring from his hair.
“Basically he was on fire for almost 10 minutes before the police arrived,” said Rinzin Choedon, a chapter coordinator with Students for a Free Tibet, an activist group. “Personally, I’m totally against this sort of immolation. Our struggle is not just for today or tomorrow. If we lose our human power and resources, how can we continue the struggle?”
Tibet has been a vassal state of China for much of its history. In 1950, the Chinese military took control, leading to the exile in 1959 of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader.
Many Tibetans in China bridle at Chinese rule, arguing that their religion, culture and traditions are being systematically smothered by Beijing under policies aimed at relocating large numbers of Han Chinese to the plateau.
This is the second attempted self-immolation in New Delhi, which is home to thousands of Tibetans who have crossed over the Himalayan mountains from China. In November, a man suffered minor burns when he tried to set himself alight outside the heavily guarded, barbed-wire ringed Chinese Embassy before police doused the flames.
“This is very unfortunate,” said Tempa Tsering, the Dalai Lama’s representative in New Delhi. “It’s because of the policies of the repressive [Chinese] government.”
Since the beginning of 2011, more than two dozen Tibetans, including many Buddhist monks and nuns, have reportedly set themselves ablaze in the Tibetan area of China to protest Beijing’s rule.
Some activists described Yeshi as unemployed, a resident of the main Tibetan exiles' neighborhood in Delhi who fled China in 2005. Others said he did odd jobs at a small monastery. He reportedly had been planning the protest for days, arriving at Jantar Mantar with a bottle of kerosene he poured over himself.
The Associated Press reported that he ran about 160 feet in flames before collapsing. At the time, dozens of people were attending a Tibetan protest rally nearby. Dr T.S. Sidhu, medical supervisor at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia hospital where he was taken, said Yeshi is in critical condition with burns on 90% of his body.
China often blames India for fomenting unrest in Tibet. India’s mountainous northern town of Dharamsala is home to the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.
“China can’t even blame India for this, though,” said Mohan Guruswamy, a China expert with New Delhi’s Center for Policy Alternatives, a think tank. “There’ve been some 28 immolations in China. India urges China to talk to the Tibetans. They’re so unhappy, you have to at least talk.”
Opinions differ over how effective the drastic tactic of self-immolation is. Guruswamy said as gruesome as it is, the tactic draws attention to the Tibetan plight in the same way the self-immolation of monks during the Vietnam War helped turn public opinion worldwide against the conflict.
“I’m not sure it’s going to galvanize public opinion,” said Rukmani Gupta, an associate fellow at Delhi’s Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, a think tank. “What you have is young people losing their lives. That’s not necessarily any gain toward talks between Beijing and Dharamsala.”
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: A burned Tibetan exile man, identified as Janphel Yeshi, is carried into a vehicle heading for a hospital after self-immolating during a demonstration in New Delhi on Monday. Credit: Manish Swarup / Associated Press.