On 9 December, Wanchen Kyi, a 16-year-old Tibetan schoolgirl, set fire to herself in Dokar Mo township in Qinghai. More than ninety Tibetans have done so since March 2011. Their last words have included calls for the return of the Dalai Lama, the release of the Panchen Lama and other political prisoners, protests against the Chinese government’s policies in the region (phasing the Tibetan language out of education; encouraging non-Tibetan settlers from inner China), and calls for Tibetan independence.
The Chinese government, condemning the self-immolations as terrorism, has increased the presence of security forces in Tibetan areas, raided monasteries and arrested suspected collaborators. The only halfway effective measure they’ve taken is to set up fire brigades outside monasteries. Both the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile have called for the self-immolations to stop. But support for them seems to be growing, especially among younger people: most of the people who’ve set fire to themselves have been under forty. The generational shift in attitudes first became apparent during the protests in Lhasa in 2008. Since the late 1980s the Tibetan government in exile has pursued a ‘Middle Way’, agreeing that Tibet should remain part of China, but with more autonomy than at present. After 25 years, however, the Middle Way has had little success in achieving any of the five points first outlined by the Dalai Lama in 1987. Rather than becoming ‘a zone of peace’, Tibet has become increasingly militarised; the transfer of settlers from other parts of China has continued; there are few safeguards for the protection of Tibet’s natural environment; there are no indications that the Chinese government is any more willing to respect the Tibetan people’s ‘fundamental human rights and democratic freedoms’. As for the question of Tibet’s final status, it seems unlikely that the new Chinese leadership will be any more willing than its predecessors to grant ‘genuine autonomy’.