China's Answer To Self-Immolations: Turn Monks Into Firefighters

 @mflorcruzm.florcruz@ibtimes.com
on November 21 2012 1:40 PM
Yeshi
Tibetan activist and exile Jamphel Yeshi, 27, runs through the streets on fire in protest of the arrival of China's president, Hu Jintao. Reuters

China has ended the heightened security-- to wartime levels -- following the conclusion of the 18th National Congress last week. 

The added security measures were meant to ensure a calm social climate during the transition from the leadership of President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao to their successors, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. On the eve of the Congress meeting, with all eyes on Beijing, a spate of self-immolations began in the northwestern Tibetan monastery town of Rebkong, or Tongren in Chinese. Tibetans have been resorting to self-immolation as a form of protesting China's government and policies in the region, which has been part of China since the 1950s. 

Though the public eye has turned away from Beijing and its politics, Tibetan self-immolations continue. As of today, the Hindu reports, a total of 76 Tibetans have set themselves ablaze in Rebkong alone, six just this past week. 

Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua ran a rare story about Tibet citing the "fire risks" that occur around monastery towns. The report talks about the monks of the Tisannyi Monastery, located in southwest Tibet, who have been trained by the local government as firefighters and established the town's first fire department. Eighteen of the towns 538 monks participated in the training and are now volunteer firemen. 

The report colorfully described the firefighting monks still donning their maroon robes as they extinguish a fire by running to a nearby river and using a water pump to douse the flames. However, no specific mention was made of what caused the "increasing frequency in recent years" of fires: the heightened tension between Tibet and the government, and the resulting self-immolations in protest. 

Currently, three monasteries are engaged in the pilot program that trains monks to double as volunteer fire brigades. 

China's continued condemnation of the Dalai Lama and of those who give the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism a platform to speak suggests that peace in Tibet is far away. 

Last week, while on a tour in Japan, the Dalai Lama addressed foreign media and Japanese parliamentary members and requested they investigate the recent string of self-immolations. The Dalai Lama's statement while in Japan, a nation with which China has an increasingly tense relationship over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, elicited a strongly worded response from the Chinese government. 

"China is opposed to any country or any individual providing a stage for his separatist moves," Hong Lei, spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry, said to media.

China's government likely assumed that self-immolation acts would slow as the Party Congress meeting came to a close. But as protests continue and precautions are set in place, China's tumultuous relationship with Tibet continues to highlight a problem that will now pass in the hands of President Xi and Prime Minister Li.

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