A Tibetan monk in west China died after setting himself ablaze in protest against the government, marking the 15th self-immolation in the country’s restive mountainous region since March, an exiled Tibetan spokesperson said on Monday.
Sonam Wangyal, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, set himself on fire in front of a police station in Darlag county in Qinghai province on Sunday to protest against the lack of religious freedom, Thubten Samphel, a spokesperson for the Central Tibetan Administration, said in an emailed statement.
China’s official Xinhua news agency confirmed the death.
Radio Free Asia said in an earlier report the monk, aged in his 40s, drank kerosene, doused his body in the fuel, and then set himself on fire while calling for the return of exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
He died at the scene and his body was taken away by police, the report said, citing unidentified sources there.
The act of deadly defiance by the high-ranking monk — called a Living Buddha, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency — followed two other self-immolations near the Kirti Monastery in an ethnically Tibetan part of China’s Sichuan province on Friday.
At least eight of the 15 Tibetans who have self-immolated in the past 10 months — most of whom were Buddhist monks and nuns — are believed to have died.
The spokesperson for the exiled Tibetan government in Dharamsala in India said thousands had protested on Sunday in the area of Qinghai province that borders the official Tibet region, demanding that authorities return the body.
“Due to his position as a local spiritual leader, approximately 2 000 local Tibetans are said to have held a candlelight vigil urging the local police authorities to release his body. The local police averted further tension by agreeing to do so,” spokesperson Thubten Samphel said.
Xinhua said the body of the latest monk to have died, whose name it spelled as Nyage Sonamdrugyu, was returned to relatives.
Calls to officials in Darlag county, called Dari in Mandarin Chinese, went unanswered on Monday.
For the Chinese government, the self-immolations are a small but destabilising challenge to its regional policies, which it says have lifted Tibetans out of poverty and servitude.
China has ruled since Communist troops marched into Tibet in 1950 and says Tibetans are free to practise their Buddhist faith. There are also many ethnic Tibetans who live in provinces neighbouring the official Tibetan region.
Senior officials in China’s Tibet Autonomous Region vowed to boost stability in Tibet as well as “patriotic legal education” among Buddhist monks and nuns after the self-immolations, Xinhua reported separately on Sunday.
China’s Foreign Ministry has branded the self-immolators “terrorists” and has said the Dalai Lama, whom it condemns as a supporter of violent separatism, should take the blame for the “immoral” burnings.
In March 2008, deadly riots against the Chinese presence spread across the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan regions ahead of the Beijing Olympics, triggering sometimes deadly confrontations with troops and police.
The Dalai Lama has not condemned or condoned the burnings but said the desperate conditions Tibetans face under Beijing’s rigid controls in what amounted to “cultural genocide” have led to the spate of self-immolations.
He denies advocating violence and separatism and insists he wants only real autonomy for his homeland. — Reuters