BEIJING (AP) — 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.
Last year, Tibet's Communist Party chief, Chen Quanguo, demanded that Buddhist monasteries display the national flag as part of efforts to shore up Chinese patriotism.
Beijing blames the Dalai Lama and others for inciting the immolations and says it has made vast investments to develop the region's economy and improve quality of life. The Dalai Lama says he is against all violence.
The previous self-immolation, of a Buddhist nun also in Kardze, took place in November. The woman, who reportedly cried out "Tibet needs freedom" and "Let His Holiness (the Dalai Lama) return to Tibet," was believed to have died.
With the Dalai Lama now 80 years old, Beijing is increasingly focusing its attention on Tibetan Buddhism's second-ranking figure, the Panchen Lama, whom it has carefully groomed since he was a young boy.
China has rejected the Dalai Lama's choice for the next Panchen, a 6-year-old who hasn't been seen since, replacing him with its own selection, now 26-year-old Gyaican Norbu. The young man resides largely in Beijing and is a member of the official government advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress, which holds its annual session starting Thursday.
In a meeting with the Panchen on Tuesday, the ruling Communist Party's top official for outreach to nonparty groups urged him to "keep in mind the exhortations of (President and party leader) Xi Jinping," state media reported.
"Continue the inherited traditions of Panchen loving the party and the faith, consciously make contributions toward safeguarding national unification and the unity of all ethnic groups," head of the United Front Work Department Sun Chunlan was quoted as telling him.
The Panchen responded by saying he would "bear in mind (Xi's) earnest instructions," the report said.