Over the last 48 hours, at least five Tibetans, possibly six, were reported to have set themselves on fire in western China. Most of them were teenagers.
Up to 6,000 people demonstrated against China on Thursday afternoon in Tongren, a monastery town in Qinghai province, following two self-immolations -- that of a 23-year-old woman on Wednesday and a young former monk on Thursday, exile groups reported.
“The situation there is very tense as Chinese armed forces have placed severe restrictions on movement in the town and are now closing in on the protesters," a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile told the Tibetan news service, Phayul.
“We have heard that 2,000 to 6,000 people demonstrated, which are plausible numbers given that there have been protests of that size before," said Harriet Beaumont, a spokeswoman for the London-based Free Tibet.
She said that the protests were in reaction to the stifling Chinese security measures, the presence of troops, intimidating footage on television and harsh sentences doled out to anybody involved in a protest or even telling people outside about protests.
"Tibetans were also aware of the approach of the congress and that might be a factor in the serious escalation in the last few days," Beaumont said.
Wednesday was the deadliest single day since Tibetans began setting themselves on fire last year. Three were teenaged monks, ages 15 to 16, from a small monastery located on the outskirts of Aba, the Sichuan province county where the immolations began. They lighted themselves on fire simultaneously outside the gates of the town’s public security bureau, chanting “freedom for Tibet” and calling for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama.Few details were available about another self-immolation reported to have taken place Wednesday in Driru county inside what is called the Tibetan Autonomous Region.
Until recently, self-immolation had been unheard of among Tibetan Buddhists who believe suicide destroys not only the body, but the chance of being reincarnated as a human being.
"People are really desperate. They feel there is no exit," said Tenzin Losel, a Tibetan businessman living in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government in exile is based. “Whenever they try to speak up or make demands, it is met with a brutal crackdown by the Chinese government.”The 18th Party Congress, which opened Thursday, is the showpiece political event for the Chinese Communist Party as it transitions into a new generation of leadership, and security has been heightened throughout China.
In his opening speech in Beijing Great Hall of the People, President Hu Jintao didn’t address the Tibetan situation although he referred repeatedly to the need for social harmony.
“Social harmony is an inherent attribute of socialism with Chinese characteristics," Hu said.
One of the Communist Party’s hand-picked Tibetan delegates to the congress appeared flustered when journalists asked about the immolations. "Can I not answer that question?" she begged in response.
-- Barbara Demick
Photo: Tibetans hold a portrait of their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama while shouting slogans during a protest in solidarity with Tibetans who have self-immolated. Credit: Ashwini Bhatia / Associated Press