Two self-immolations in Tibet: Kirti monk on crackdown anniversary and woman in Dzoge

Lobsang Thogme

28-year old Kirti monk called Lobsang Thogme set fire to himself and died on Saturday, March 16, 2013.

UPDATE August, 21 2013: The Chinese state media Xinhua reported on August 16 that the Intermediate People’s Court in Ngaba (Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture had sentenced a Tibetan man, 32-year old Dolma Kyab (Chinese transliteration: Drolma Gya), to death for ‘killing his wife and burning her body to make it look as if she had self-immolated.’ Full details of the circumstances of Kunchok Wangmo’s death are not known. The imposition of the death penalty is rare in Tibet and there are concerns that the verdict may have been influenced by political circumstances.

The death penalty for ‘homicide’ was handed down by the Intermediate People’s Court in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in. Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo) on August 15. According to Xinhua, “The court found that at 11 p.m. on March 11, Drolma Gya choked his 29-year-old wife Kunchok Wangmo to death with a scarf in their apartment in Zoige [Tibetan: Dzoge] County following an argument over his drinking.” The Xinhua report also stated that Dolma Kyab “burned the body because he believed an apparent self-immolation would help him cover up the crime, as well as preserve his dignity and that of their daughter.” (Global Times, Man sentenced to death after faking wife’s self-immolation).

According to Chinese law, the case must now be reviewed by a higher court. If a first trial by an intermediate people’s court hands down the death penalty, the first appeal is conducted by a High People’s Court’ and also by the Supreme People’s Court. The higher courts have the power to change the verdict, including to impose a death sentence suspended for two years, which generally means life imprisonment. If the death penalty is upheld without reprieve, the execution is generally carried out shortly afterwards.

The circumstances of the case are still unclear due to the oppressive political environment and climate of fear in the area. According to some Tibetan sources, which could not be confirmed, Kunchok Wangmo set fire to herself late at night and died. Even while the details are not known, the authorities in Ngaba quickly sought to frame a case against Dolma Kyab, accusing him of killing his wife. Radio Free Asia and other Tibetan sources reported that on the morning after Kunchok Wangmo’s death, security officials came to the family home and offered substantial bribes for Dolma Kyab to say that she had committed suicide due to family problems. The same sources say that his arrest followed his refusal to do so, although full details of the circumstances are not known.

The Xinhua report makes no mention of any evidence in this case other than a ‘confession’ by Dolma Kyab. It is known that torture is frequently used to extract confessions in China, and that Tibetan prisoners are often tried secretly behind closed doors without legal counsel of their own choosing. Bhuchung Tsering, ICT’s Interim President, said: “The news of this death sentence raises serious questions, particularly in such a politically-charged environment. Given the secretive nature of the detention and trial of Dolma Kyab, it appears that he may not have received a fair trial and due process.”

The International Campaign for Tibet called upon governments to seek an urgent review of the case.

The Chinese authorities have launched an aggressive new drive to criminalize self-immolations in Tibet. In January, a Tibetan monk named Lobsang Kunchok was given a suspended death sentence, and his nephew Lobsang Tsering sentenced to ten years for “intentional homicide” connected to the self-immolation of eight Tibetans in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) – although five of the self-immolations never occurred (ICT report, Distress at death sentence for Tibetan accused of ‘inciting ‘self-immolation’). The severe sentences were the first to be imposed against individuals who have allegedly ‘incited’ or ‘coerced’ Tibetans to self-immolate.

The sentencing and elaborate propaganda efforts surrounding the trial of Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Tsering (news of the alleged conspiracy was covered in the official press and state television) demonstrated a hard line and more systematic response by the authorities to recast the self-immolations as criminal acts and attribute blame for the self-immolations to ‘outside forces.’

UPDATE March 21, 2013: According to the state-run Global Times, Ngaba officials now claim that Kunchok Wangmo was “strangled to death by her husband [Dolma Kyab], who later burned her body.” (Global Times, 19 March 2013). Citing a media officer for Ngaba prefecture named Jiang Zuquan, the article claimed that Kunchok Wangmo was strangled “after a fight escalated between the couple over Drolma Gya’s [Dolma Kyab’s] alcohol addiction.” According to the article, Jiang Zuquan was “certain the case was not a protest against Chinese policy in Tibetan-inhabited areas as reported by Radio Free Asia.”

An article published online by Xinhua on March 20 claimed that the alleged argument between Kunchok Wangmo and Dolma Kyab occurred over his supposed “gambling, marital relations and other issues,” in addition to the claim of alcoholism previously reported. Xinhua added details on Dolma Kyab’s detention, reporting that he is being held by “the Zoige County PSB on suspicion of intentional homicide, while the case undergoes further investigation.”(Xinhua, 20 March 2013).

As Chinese officials struggle to respond to the Tibetan self-immolations, officials have increasingly turned to allegations regarding the mental health and moral character of Tibetan self-immolators, alleging that they are easily manipulated, mentally unstable, and prone to engaging in socially deviant behavior.

  • A 28-year old Kirti monk called Lobsang Thogme set fire to himself and died on Saturday, March 16, the fifth anniversary of a protest in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), eastern Tibet, in which armed police fired into an unarmed crowd. He is the third Kirti monk to set fire to himself on the anniversary of the crackdown in 2008.
  • The husband of a Tibetan woman called Kunchok Wangmo who set fire to herself and died on March 13 was detained in Dzoge, Ngaba and his whereabouts is unknown. Kunchok Wangmo’s body was taken away by troops immediately after her self-immolation.
  • 108 Tibetans have now self-immolated in Tibet since 2009, with one Tibetan setting fire to herself in Beijing.

On the afternoon of March 16, Kirti monk Lobsang Thogme doused himself in petrol at the door of his room in the monastery compound, set himself on fire, and ran towards the gate holding a khatag (Tibetan white blessing scarf), according to Kirti monks in exile in Dharamsala, India.

In a translation from the Tibetan, the Kirti monks in exile said: “Before reaching the gate, he fell to the ground. By that time, many monks and laypeople reached the spot, and he was taken to the county hospital, but passed away soon after. It is not known what he shouted during his protest. On arrival at the hospital, a large force of police and soldiers came there and forcibly took possession of his remains, which they then took to the prefecture headquarters at Barkham(Chinese: Markam).”

Lobsang is the third Tibetan to self-immolate on the anniversary of the crackdown on March 16, 2008, when 18 Tibetans were killed, according to exile sources from Ngaba. The young Kirti monk Lobsang Phuntsog self-immolated on the same anniversary day in 2011, followed by 20-year old Kirti monk Losang Tsultrim a year later on March 16. Lobsang Thogme was from the Trinkon village area of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) county in Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province, the Tibetan area of Amdo.

Lobsang Thogme joined Kirti monastery at a young age, and was known as a diligent student. He is survived by his parents and four brothers and sisters, according to the Kirti monks in exile.

Self-immolation of Kunchok Wangmo

News has just emerged of the self-immolation on March 13 of a Tibetan woman called Kunchok Wangmo, aged 31, in Dzoge (Chinese: Ruo’ergai) in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture. This was the seventh self-immolation in Dzoge.

Kunchok Wangmo set fire to herself at her home and ran into the street, according to Tibetan exile sources. According to the same sources, she died at the scene and troops and police took her corpse away.

On March 14, police gave the ashes of her body to her husband, Drolma Kyab. They ordered him to say that the self-immolation was because of family problems. According to the same sources and the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia, Drolma Kyab was detained when he failed to acknowledge the police orders. His current whereabouts is unknown. The couple have an eight-year old daughter.

There has been a strong and intimidating presence of troops in Dzoge, especially around the monasteries, since March 10, the anniversary of Tibet’s National Uprising in 1959, and the day in 2008 when protests began to sweep across Tibet.

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