The Tibetan Labrang Monastery in Gansu, northwestern China, is normally a place of tranquility. Now, it is also known for tragedy. Early this morning, a Tibetan farmer known as Dhondup headed to Labrang to perform the Buddhist ritual of walking around the monastery in prayer. Near the prayer hall inside the gold-roofed monastery, Dhondup lit himself ablaze in protest of Chinese rule in Tibet. This is the second self-immolation in Tibet in two days, continuing a disturbing trend among Tibetan protesters.
A picture (note: it is graphic; you may not wish to view it) uploaded by the U.K.-based human rights organization Free Tibet shows what is said to be Dhondup's body engulfed in flames against a backdrop of white brick and blue sky. According to witnesses, Buddhist monks surrounded his charred remains so that Chinese authorities could not confiscate the body.
Stephanie Brigde, director of the organization, said in a written statement that Dhondup is now the eighth Tibetan protester to self-immolate this month. The group claims that nearly 60 Tibetans — mostly monks and nuns — have turned to suicide by fire in Tibet and bordering Chinese provinces since spring of last year. Few survived and many of their whereabouts are unknown, but activists point fingers at the Chinese government.
"China must recognize that Tibetan demands for freedom cannot be stamped out by brute force," Brigde wrote following Dhondup's death, adding that China "must enter into meaningful dialogue with Tibetan representatives, supported by the international community."
Tibetan protesters seek religious freedom and want to draw international attention to what they say is repressive Chinese rule. The Chinese government continues to deny such accusations, instead blaming the exiled Dalai Lama for effectively inciting self-immolation — a claim he denies.
Raids on Tibetan monasteries by Chinese authorities have become more common, in an attempt to quell protests and arrest monks who are suspected of distributing information about self-immolation or photographing those who choose to set themselves on fire. Chinese police have urged at least one protester's family to testify that the self-immolation had nothing to do with China's control over Tibet.
While today's self-immolation was the first at Labrang, Tibet's holy sites are not unfamiliar to protest and defiance of Chinese reign. Other Tibetans have lit themselves on fire at other monasteries, often drinking gasoline, shouting slogans demanding freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama, and holding the Tibetan flag – an illegal symbol in China – as they burn.
(Sophia Jones is an intern with NPR News.)