The Tibetan monk Phuntsog was twenty years old when in March 2011 he set himself ablaze at the Kirti monastery in the western part of Sichuan province, which the Tibetans call Amdo. He died shortly thereafter in hospital. Phunstsog's act set an unprecedented wave of self-immolations in motion that has continued unabated. Exile Tibetan sources now count 112 cases, mostly in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan and Qinghai. In Tibet, considered an autonomous region by China, there were seven self-immolations, while four Tibetans in exile set themselves alight.
The Chinese government has reacted harshly to the self-immolations. The Kirti monastery was cordoned off and occupied by police right after Phuntsog's suicide, and some monks were forced to leave the monastery. China accuses exile Tibetan forces of initiating the self-immolations. The authorities in Aba district, where the Kirti monastery is located, are even accusing the exiled abbot of the monastery, the Kirti Rinpoche, of initiating the burnings.
DW: Rinpoche, you are head of the eminent Kirti monastery, where the wave of self-immolations by Tibetans began two years ago. You yourself have lived in exile in India since 1959. How did you react when you heard about the self-immolations?
Kirti Rinpoche: Apparently people perceive the situation as so unbearable that they see this as a final way to draw attention to their situation. To see that people have died in this way has made me very sad.
How do you stand as the spiritual authority of the monastery? Is self-immolation an appropriate means of protest?
This is a difficult decision. On the one hand, such action is already an aggressive act that many people reject and do not approve of emotionally. But we must also respect the motivation of the people and their freedom to make this decision. They evidently see no other way to express their concerns. They act out of free will and give up their own lives, not those of others. That is something we must take into account.
In exile, are you in a position to monitor the situation in the monastery?
Of course, the means of communication are limited. Again and again, the Internet and mobile phone connections are interrupted unexpectedly by Chinese authorities. The authorities confiscate the phones of residents in the area and check who calls where. And if information is disclosed about the situation or videos are sent, people are punished. In this respect, the communication is very limited.
Nevertheless, the Tibetans are making an effort to pass on messages. It usually takes a few days for information to arrive to us. For example, we just received word that on March 13, a Tibetan woman set herself alight in the area. I only received this news four days later. The situation right now is very dangerous. Chinese soldiers frequently surround the monastery. But even if they are not there, the monastery is bugged. Cameras have been set up. The authorities use the secret police to try to find out what the Tibetans have planned, and to create an atmosphere of intimidation.
The latest development in Tibet is that the families of people who have burned themselves are themselves being held liable. They are brought to trial and convicted. This is a new development. On January 31, a relative of a monk who set fire to himself was sentenced to a conditional death penalty. That is, he was sentenced to death, but the execution was suspended for two years, after which it is checked whether the sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment. With him, seven other family members were arrested.
Are you still able at all to fulfill your role as spiritual leader of the monastery?
I have no direct connection and can provide no religious instruction, which would actually be one of my duties. But I still try, especially in religious matters, to give advice.
Could a clear statement from exile to be able to stop these self-immolations?
There are such statements from high lamas such as the Karmapa Rinpoche. The poet and blogger Tsering Woeser in Beijing has spoken out against it. Even the Tibetan Prime Minister in exile, Lobsang Sangyay, has denounced these self-immolations. But this has not led to a decline. I think the main point of contact for these demands is not the people who decide to take this step, but the Chinese government.
I look at the Chinese policy of oppression as the underlying cause of these self-immolations. As long as the conditions do not change, Tibetans will be ready for such drastic steps again and again. It will be of little use to appeal to the people to refrain from that. Our main appeal is therefore to the Chinese government to reconsider its policy. There is also the question of to what extent the Tibetans in exile have the right to disapprove of these self-immolations if they cannot offer the Tibetans in Tibet an alternative.
A leadership change has just taken place in Beijing. Do you expect the new leadership to rethink its policy on Tibet?
The Tibetans have placed their hopes in each new leadership in China. They have meanwhile lived through four generations of leaders. In recent years, the situation has improved for many people in China, but not for the Tibetans. For them, the repression has even increased. Of course Tibetans are hoping for improvements from the next leadership. But they are also skeptical. I am personally convinced that the situation in China will ease, but I have my doubts for Tibet. We hope instead that the Western public will put constant pressure on the Chinese government.
That pressure has existed for a long time. It seems to have made little impression on the Chinese government.
Nevertheless, it is important to maintain this pressure. The human rights of the Tibetan people have been violated for sixty years.
Lobsang Tenzin Jigme Yeshi Gyamtso Pal Sangpo was born in 1942. In 1946 he was formally recognized as the reincarnation of the Kirti Rinpoche, the head of the Kirti monastery, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries. In 1959, along with the Dalai Lama he fled into exile. He was minister for religion in the government in exile from 1997 to 1999.