First self-immolation of year reported in Tibetan region

By Christopher Bodeen for the Associated Press

A Tibetan Buddhist monk set himself on fire and died in a protest against Chinese rule, in the first such action of its kind this year, a U.S. government-funded radio station said Wednesday.

Kalsang Wangdu self-immolated Monday afternoon near the Retsokha monastery in western Sichuan province's traditionally Tibetan autonomous prefecture of Kardze, Radio Free Asia reported. It said the monk called out for Tibetan independence while he burned, then died on the way to a hospital in the provincial capital of Chengdu.

Tibetan exile sources say at least 114 monks and laypeople have self-immolated over the past five years, with most of them dying. Radio Free Asia puts the number of self-immolations at 144 since 2009.

Information from the region, which is largely cut off from the rest of the province by security checkpoints, is extremely hard to obtain, and local officials are reportedly under orders to remain silent about self-immolations. An officer who answered the phone Wednesday at Kardze police headquarters and gave his surname as Li said no such incident had been reported.

"We are now in a period of preserving stability. If such a thing happens, we will make it known to the public," Li said by telephone.

Radio Free Asia and other groups also reported that a 16-year-old Tibetan living in India set himself on fire on Monday as a protest, but that he survived.

The protests are seen as an extreme expression of the anger and frustration felt by many Tibetans living under heavy-handed Chinese rule. Many protesters also call for the return of the Tibetans' exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese forces who had occupied the Himalayan region a decade earlier.

Tibetan monks and nuns are among the most active opponents of Chinese rule in the region and the strongest proponents of Tibet's independent identity, prompting the authorities to subject them to some of the harshest and most intrusive restrictions.

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