A young Tibetan monk who recently escaped from western China has revealed the repression and censorship that drove five of his friends to set themselves on fire in desperate acts of protest. He was present in the aftermath of one of the fatal self-immolations.
The 17-year-old, who asked to be identified as Dontik, said the wave of immolations – at least nine Buddhist monks and two nuns have so far set themselves alight this year – was driven by a growing sense of helplessness among Tibetan youth. He said he too had considered setting himself on fire but claimed he lacked sufficient "courage".
"All of this is happening because of the government repression in Tibet," he told The Independent on Sunday. "There are no rights of speech or movement. Outside, there are different ways to demonstrate but in Tibet this is the only option, the only choice, for protesting against the Chinese government."
The testimony of the young man, his eyes raw and bloodshot, provides crucial insight into the wave of self-immolations that have rocked Tibet and delivered a serious challenge to both the government in China and the Tibetan community in exile. Dontik said the increased security operations by the Chinese authorities were exacerbating the situation rather than stabilising it.
While a number of the monks who set themselves alight knew each other, he said he did not believe the immolations were organised. "This is not organised by anyone. After the incidents, the government is cracking down more and more, and so the people are doing it voluntarily," he said. "They are looking for international support and to get international attention. They want to show the world what is going on in Tibet."
The struggle for freedom for Tibet dates from the Chinese invasion in 1950 and the subsequent escape of the Dalai Lama to India. Under his leadership, the movement has attracted international attention but failed to deliver results on the ground. Stressing non-violence, the Dalai Lama has sought to pursue a "middle way" policy that has stressed "meaningful autonomy" for Tibetans, especially in regard to religion and culture, rather than outright sovereignty. Some younger Tibetans, represented by groups such as the Tibetan Youth Congress, would prefer a more direct approach, yet China has shown little flexibility regardless, portraying the Dalai Lama as a "splittist" and heaping personal insults on him. Tibetan envoys have not been invited to China since the beginning of 2010, despite the election this summer of a new Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay.
The young man I spoke to made his way to the Indian town of Dharamsala – home of the exiled Tibetan community since the Dalai Lama fled China in 1959 – only three weeks ago, and as such his account may include some of the latest information available. His story is especially compelling because he was a novice at the Kirti monastery in Aba, with which most of those who have self-immolated were linked. He knew five of the 11 who have set themselves on fire, three of whom were from his home village.
Dontik, whose family remains inside Tibet, said he had been close to the monastery in March this year when the first of the immolations occurred. He made his way to the scene, unaware who had set themselves on fire and only subsequently learned that the person was a friend and class-mate, Lobsang Phuntsog.
By that point, the body had been taken away, first to the monastery and later to a hospital where the 21-year-old died the following morning, but the monk said he could still see the foam from the fire extinguishers and the box of matches his friend had used to set himself on fire. He reached down and picked it up.
"When I found the matchbox, I did not know who it was who had self-immolated. I knew it was a Tibetan," said the monk, who said he placed the matchbox in a bowl on a shelf at his family's home. "I kept the matchbox for remembrance, for me and for the Tibetan people."
After the self-immolation, the Chinese authorities intensified their security operation at the monastery, which was the scene of an uprising in 2008. Hundreds of monks were sent back to their villages; others were forced to undergo "patriotic re-education".
The friends and familyof Lobsang Phuntsog were questioned and detained. An uncle was charged and jailed for three years. His fatherremained indetention, said the monk.
At that point, the monk said he decided to renew his efforts to leave Tibet. He declined to explain how he got to India, other than to say he first made his way to Nepal, as most of the scores who flee every year do. It was while he was in Nepal that he learned of the immolation on 26 September of another two monks from Kirti, Lobsang Kalsang and Lobsang Konchok, who were both aged 18 and related to Lobsang Phuntsog. The monk said he knew both of them as they were also from his village. "I used to play with Kalsang and Phuntsog in the monastery. We would wrestle. Sometimes we would play with a ball," he said.
The teenager said he also knew two other monks who set themselves on fire. One was 18-year-old Khayang who self-immolated on 7 October with a colleague, Choephel. Both died. The other was Norbu Dramdul, a 19-year-old former monk who set himself alight on 15 October in the main market in Aba after shouting: "Freedom for Tibet." His condition and whereabouts are unknown.
The wave of immolations has presented a difficult challenge to the Tibetan community. While the sacrifice of those giving their lives is recognised, the religious and political leadership has called for it to end. The Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, was among the first to call for an end to what was happening. "The situation is unbearably difficult, but in difficult situations we need greater courage and determination," he said in a statement. "We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet. Although the situation is difficult, we need to live long and stay strong without losing sight of our long-term goals."
The Dalai Lama and Tibet's Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, have both asked that the immolations cease. The Dalai Lama last week told the BBC: "The question is how much effect [the self-immolations have]. That's the question. There is courage – very strong courage. But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilise your wisdom."
Campaigners say the wave of immolations is unprecedented. And at the same time, Tibetans such as the young monk continue to flee Tibet. "Their main drive is to leave Tibet or else send their children into exile," said Stephanie Brigden of Free Tibet, a London-based NGO.
There is also agreement that what happens next will depend largely on what action China takes. Dontik, who intends to stay in Dharamsala, said: "If the Chinese government keeps cracking down on the Tibetan people, more will burn themselves."