Dozens of Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past year to protest Chinese rule, sometimes drinking kerosene to make the flames explode from within, in one of the biggest waves of political self-immolations in recent history.
But the stunning protests are going largely unnoticed in the wider world – due in part to a smothering Chinese security crackdown in the region that prevents journalists from covering them.
While a single fruit seller in Tunisia who lit himself on fire in December 2010 is credited with igniting the Arab Spring democracy movement, the Tibetan self-immolations have so far failed to prompt the changes the protesters demand: an end to government interference in their religion and a return of the exiled Dalai Lama.
Still, experts describe self-immolations as, historically, a powerful form of protest, and the ones in Tibet might yet lead to some broader uprising or stir greater international pressure on Beijing.
The Tibetan protesters have burned themselves in market places, main streets, military camps and other symbols of government authority in western China, mostly in a single remote county. Most of the protesters have been members of the Buddhist clergy. The latest were two monks, aged 21 and 22, on Friday.
“In scale, this is one of the biggest waves of self-immolation in the last six decades,” said Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs, who studies politically driven suicides. “Particularly that it’s in one small area of China and in one small ethnic group, definitely, in terms of the intensity compared to the population, it seems to be much greater.”
The pace of 32 self-immolations in little more than a year is more rapid than the suicide-by-fire protests that punctuated the Vietnam War and the pro-democracy movement in South Korea, experts say. It is surpassed only by the more than 100 students in India who burned themselves to protest a caste-based affirmative action proposal in 1990, Biggs said.