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Self-immolations spread from Tibet to the diaspora

NEW DELHI — There's a grim reason for the mounting tide of self-immolations in the homeland they may never see. Now, perhaps more than ever before, China is winning the battle for Tibet.

What should the Dalai Lama do?

Q & A with Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies at Columbia Univ.
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Tibet's exiled spiritual leader Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama at an open public talk in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP/Getty Images)

Self-immolations are in the news. Besides reports today of a Chinese man who set himself on fire in Beijing's Tiananmen Square, China is also facing a wave of self-immolations in eastern Tibet. 

At least 11 monks and nuns have set themselves on fire this year in protest of China's grip on their homeland. Last week, the Dalai came forward and blamed China for the spate of tragic acts, saying its approach in Tibet amounts to "cultural genocide." 

For some, it was a welcome message from a figure who, inevitably, is at the center of any news out of Tibet. For others, it began the well-worn cycle that starts with the Dalai Lama condemning China, moves to China condemning the Dalai Lama, and ends without much changed.

"It's hard to see new ways to describe the situation. But we have to keep on trying to describe it," said Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University.

GlobalPost spoke with Barnett about the likelihood that China will make some changes, what the Dalai Lama can really do, and why no one is an idle commentator on this issue.

GlobalPost: The majority of Tibetans who have self-immolated this year have died. It's clear these deaths are the result of more than a decade of repressive policies in Tibet. What is a helpful frame to make sense of this in the West?

Professor Robbie Barnett: We would have to imagine a government here treating universities as, let's say, mafia centers or criminal cults that have to be repeatedly invaded by police. That's roughly how the major Tibetan monasteries are being viewed now in China.


Dalai Lama blames "cultural genocide" in Tibet for self-immolations

At least 11 Tibetans have set themselves on fire this year in protest of Chinese rule.

Tibet is burning

BIHAR — During my detention by Chinese authorities, I was not mistreated, only exhausted. That does not compare to the intimidation and violence that Tibetans endure daily.

Desmond Tutu celebrates birthday with Bono, without Dalai Lama (VIDEO)

Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his peaceful struggle against apartheid, is widely seen as South Africa's moral compass, and known for his controversial statements on a range of issues. 

Tibet: What does a trend of self-immolations tell us?

Q & A with Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of New York City's Students for a Free Tibet.
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A Tibetan monk in exile looks on during a candle lit vigil to commemorate 50 years in exile on March 10, 2009 in Dharamsala, India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama marks 50 years of exile today in Mcleod Ganj, the seat of the exiled Tibetan government near the town of Dharamsala. (Daniel Berehulak/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, two teenaged Tibetans, both former monks, set themselves on fire at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in eastern Tibet (Chinese: Sichuan province). Together, they raise the number of self-immolations this year to seven.


Dalai Lama Man of Many Faces: Exile, Spiritual Leader, Politician

The 14th Dalai Lama doesn't have much going on — only the future of Tibetan Buddhists.

South Africa stalls on Dalai Lama visa amid concerns of Chinese pressure

China, which is South Africa's largest trading partner, reacts angrily to countries that allow the Dalai Lama entry and grant him meetings with high-level officials.

Can Tibetans be bought?

China's sure going to try.
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A Tibetan worker builds the house on June 21, 2009 in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China. (Feng Li/Getty Images)

China has announced its intention to spend $47 billion on the unruly Tibetan Autonomous Region before 2015.

The money, according to state-run Xinhua, will go toward 226 key projects ranging from infrastructure developments — like new highways linking Tibet with China's interior regions — to health care to better access to tap water and more.


That's very, um, generous of you, China.

Or is it?

Throwing money at the problem of restive populations isn't a new development for China. It's been going for years, and not just in Tibet.

China recently declared its desire to transform the Uighurs autonomous region, Xinjiang.

Hardly a selfless act, China was clear about wanting to turn Xinjiang into a major production base for petroleum and other energy-related industries.

A closer look at Tibet, and China's motives there are also far from altruistic.

China's new proposal for Tibet more than doubles what it spent on the region between 2006 and 2010.

That fact, coupled with the latest tourism figures out of Tibet (6.2 million folks came through in the first eight months of 2011 — a more than 20 percent jump from 2010), suggest that China's view of Tibet is changing. 

Just maybe not in the ways Tibet would like to see.


More bad news for Tibetan monks

China has sentenced a Tibetan monk to 11 years in jail for hiding his fellow monk who had self-immolated.
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Tibetan monk delegates arrive at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 12, 2009. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

Earlier this month, news of a monk self-immolating in southwestern China sent ripples of terror through the Tibetan Buddhist community.

Not only did the act of Tsewang Norbu, known as Norko, burning himself alive bring onlookers to a halt, and force them to register the oppression under which Tibetans live in China.

But it also forced people to say, "Again?"

Norko was the second monk to light himself on fire and die from subsequent injuries in the last six months.

And today, it is that first monk, Rigzin Phuntsog, who self-immolated in China's Sichuan province on March 16, who is again making headlines months after his death.

A Chinese court has sentenced a monk called Drongdru to 11 years in jail for “intentional homicide” for hiding his fellow monk and preventing him from getting treatment after he set himself on fire, state news agency Xinhua reported on Monday.

According to Reuters:

Drongdru ... pled guilty to the murder charge and said he felt very regretful over the hiding and prevention of emergency treatment and asked for leniency. Drongdru said at the court room that he would not appeal against the verdict,” Xinhua said.

According to reports, at least three monks have self-immolated in China since 2009.

Two other monks will stand trial on Tuesday charged with “plotting, instigating and assisting” in Rigzin Phuntsog's self-immolation.

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