Protesters carrying posters of Tibetans who have self-immolated walk to the United Nations in New York on December 10, 2012.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Protesters carrying posters of Tibetans who have self-immolated walk to the United Nations in New York on December 10, 2012.

Story highlights

Details of the death are sketchy

Self-immolation as protest started in 2009

By December last year, 95 Tibetans had carried out the act

China rejects accusations of oppression

A Tibetan man protesting China’s rule of the region set himself on fire Saturday, his death believed to be the first case of self-immolation this year – but one that adds to a grim, growing toll.

The death took place in Gansu province in northwestern China.

It was reported by Free Tibet, a London-based organization that campaigns for self-determination for Tibetans, and by the U.S.-based Radio Free Asia.

Free Tibet said the man was 22, while Radio Free Asia put his age at 19.

Details of the death – as has been the case with other such incidents – are sketchy and difficult to verify. Internet content controlled by local authorities makes reliable information almost impossible to come by.

Self-immolation is a common form of protest for Tibetans, who want genuine autonomy from China and accuse Beijing of repression.

China began a gradual occupation of Tibet in the 1950s. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled for India in 1959 after a failed uprising, and many ethnic Tibetans followed him.

Beijing rejects accusations of oppression, saying that under its rule, living standards have greatly improved for the Tibetan people. It makes centuries-old historical claims on the region.

Self-immolation as a form of protest by Tibetans began in February 2009, when a young monk set himself ablaze. In March 2011, another young monk followed in his footsteps, becoming the first to die.

By December 2012, 95 Tibetans had carried out the act, with 28 self-immolations in November alone when China’s political elite ushered in its next generation of leaders during its Communist Party Congress. At least 81 of them died, according to the International Tibet Network, a coalition of some 150 pro-Tibet groups..

In his first speech as Communist Party leader, Xi Jinping stressed the need for unity in a country where the Party was becoming too distant from the people. This followed predecessor Hu Jintao’s comments to Congress delegates in November that the Party “should consolidate and develop socialist ethnic relations of equality, unity, mutual assistance and harmony so that all ethnic groups in China will live and develop together in harmony.”

But activists warn that if the Chinese government continues to tighten its grip on the Tibetan people in the name of stability, it will only create more resentment.

They point to the growing list of young victims prepared to take such extreme action, which they say reflects a desperate and painful state of mind for many.