A protest calling for the return of the Dalai Lama and an end to Chinese rule has erupted as thousands of Tibetans gathered to mourn a farmer who burned himself to death, according to rights groups.
Nearly 30 Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past year to protest against the suppression of their religion and culture and to call for the return of their spiritual leader, who fled into exile in 1959.
The communist government has accused supporters of the Dalai Lama of encouraging the self-immolations.
The US broadcaster Radio Free Asia said Sonam Thargyal, a 44-year-old farmer and father of four, fastened cotton padding to his body with iron wire and doused himself with kerosene before setting himself on fire Saturday in Tongren, a monastery town in western China‘s Qinghai province. He also drank kerosene, the broadcaster said.
“The Tibetans who were at the scene attempted to put out the flames but death was very fast because of the kerosene inside and outside the body,” Dorjee Wangchuk, a Tibetan exiled in Dharamsala, India, with close ties to the Tongren community, was quoted as saying by RFA.
Thargyal had called out for an end to Chinese rule in Tibetan-populated areas, the return of the Dalai Lama and Tibetan language rights, RFA said.
As many as 7,000 Tibetans took part in Thargyal’s funeral and cremation, the broadcaster said.
The London-based rights group Free Tibet also gave an account of events on Saturday, though most reported unrest in Tibetan areas cannot be independently verified. It posted photos on its website of what it said was Thargyal’s charred body covered in ceremonial yellow silk scarves and hundreds of people marching up a hill to a cremation site where his remains were burned.
Free Tibet said there was a small confrontation between the mourners and Chinese security forces but that it was mediated peacefully and the security forces withdrew. “It is believed that the paramilitary forces had to withdraw given the vast numbers of Tibetans present,” Free Tibet said.
The Dalai Lama has praised the courage of those who engage in self-immolation and has attributed the protests to what he calls China’s “cultural genocide” in Tibet.
Phone calls to the Tongren county government and police went unanswered on Sunday. A man who answered the telephone at the government office of Huangnan prefecture, which oversees Tongren, said he had not heard reports of an immolation or a protest. “All things here are fine,” said the man, who refused to give his name.
A man who answered the phone at Tongren’s Yunlong Hotel, which is close to the funeral site, said he was unaware of any self-immolation or demonstration. “Nothing happened here,” said the man, who also refused to give his name. “The monastery is still open to visitors today and I did not notice police presence around the monastery.”