A young Tibetan farmer set himself ablaze in Nyagrong county in the Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture last weekend in the year’s first self-immolation to demand freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama.
The 24-year-old has been identified as Pema Gyaltsen, an unmarried native of the Nyagrong county and the sole breadwinner of a family of six. According to a Radio Free Asia report on Monday, nearly 200 residents of the county have since been taken into custody over the self-immolation.
Self-immolation is not uncommon in the Himalayan region, with many choosing to sacrifice their lives to denounce the constant human rights violations allegedly orchestrated by Beijing.
There have been 147 reported self-immolation cases since a wave of protests began in 2009, although that number is likely higher, considering the information choke-hold in the region.
The last known self-immolation took place in December when Tash Rabten set himself alight in Gansu province, leaving behind a wife and three children. Another self-immolation by Kalsang Wangdu took place in Nyagrong earlier that year in March.
Beijing has long exerted control over Tibet despite continued calls for freedom.
Many have advocated for independence or, at the very least, quasi-autonomy, but the prospect of severing the chain between Beijing and Lhasa is a distance prospect.
Waves of Han Chinese have been flooding the province, encouraged and incentivised by Beijing. A railway now connects the two historical cities and waves of domestic tourism have commercialised the spiritual region.
Under the surface, China is imposing Han culture to quell separatist claims.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, has been exiled in India ever since a failed uprising in 1959. Tibetans demand his return to rule over the region.
The Dalai Lama, however, has referred to himself as the “son of India”, after being in exile for almost six decades. The Tibetan leader was visiting India’s Nalanda district in Bihar to attend an international seminar on Buddhism when he made the comment.
After inaugurating the seminar, the Dalai Lama said, “In the field of secularism there is no other country like India. When I was in Tibet, my thoughts were narrow. But when I moved out of my homeland and came to India, I developed a broader thought about Tibet as well as about the entire world.”
Beijing has long suppressed religion throughout Tibet.
The Dalai Lama regularly speaks at events around the world, but an upcoming visit has caught the ire of Beijing. Next month, he is set to visit Arunachal Pradesh, a region in India partially claimed by China.
Beijing warned against the visit, but New Delhi brushed off the concerns. Arunachal Pradesh is home to a famous Buddhist monetary in Tawang, which the Tibetan leader visited eight years ago.
Beijing refers to Arunachal Pradesh as Southern Tibet and refers to the Dalai Lama as a ‘dangerous separatist’, in part because he leads the government-in-exile in northern India, a relatively impressive apparatus.
Through supporting the Tibetans, India is hitting a nerve within Beijing.
But amid tensions between the two regional powers, Tibetans continue to face the daily struggles of living under Chinese rule. The most recent self-immolation cases and the Dalai Lama’s upcoming visit remind us of the importance of Tibet in the regional divide.