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Monks burn themselves alive to protest police attacks, confinement and surveillance

Monks at the Kirti monastery in Sichuan province
Monks at the Kirti monastery in Sichuan province

Violent raids, arbitrary detentions and permanent police surveillance drove two former Tibetan monks to fatally set themselves on fire on 7 October, reports Human Rights Watch. The tragic deaths follow a pattern, with four others self-immolating this year alone in the Sichuan region.

Choephel, 18, and Khaying, 20, set themselves aflame to protest the harsh conditions at Kirti monastery in the Aba region of Sichuan province, according to the organisation. They later died in hospital.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least one of the four others who set themselves on fire earlier this year, 20-year-old Phuntsok Jarutsang, died from his injuries. However, the organisation has been unable to track down any information on the others' whereabouts or physical wellbeing.

Numerous monasteries and communities in the Tibetan plateau have been targeted with police crackdowns since the 2008 separatist protests. Since 2002, the Chinese government has especially increased expenditures on security in Aba and Ganzi prefectures, with up to five times as much security spending than non-Tibetan prefectures in Sichuan, says Human Rights Watch. This has led to police being posted at monasteries and heavy-handed tactics, including the forcible removal of monks deemed troublesome.

In addition, monks at Kirti must now have letters from three different guarantors if they wish to leave monastery grounds, Human Rights Watch notes.

"Recent developments in and around Kirti monastery show the terrible human cost of ongoing repression," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "Cleary the Chinese government can't spend its way out of this problem - genuine stability is the result of protecting, not denying people their rights."

Despite the fact that the self-immolations were individual actions, the Chinese government's response has been to collectively punish monks at Kirti and in neighbouring areas, Human Rights Watch reports. After the first immolation in March, food and water was cut off to Kirti for several days. In April, more than 300 Kirti monks were shipped off to unspecified locations and subjected to weeks of "patriotic education," after which some were forced to go back to their homes and stay away from the monastery.

Shockingly, in September, three Kirti monks were sentenced 10 to 13 years in jail for allegedly aiding Jarutsang in setting himself on fire, Human Rights Watch reports. Numerous others suspected of involvement were sentenced to up to three years of labour, adds the organisation.

Human Rights Watch is demanding that the Chinese government release information about monks who have been forcibly removed from the Kirti monastery and called on governments worldwide to pressure Chinese authorities to do something about the deteriorating state of human rights in China, especially in Tibet.

Also drawing global attention to violations of Tibetans' rights is the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of PEN International, which will be featuring the case of Tashi Rabten, an imprisoned Tibetan poet and essayist, in its annual International Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November. Rabten was convicted of encouraging separatism after he wrote several articles criticising the Chinese government's harsh repression of March 2008 protests in Lhasa.

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