The Tibetan National Martyrs’ Memorial is a black obelisk in Dharamsala, the Indian hill station that serves as the headquarters of exiled Tibetans who have fled their Chinese-ruled homeland.
“Usually the slender monument is surrounded by a colorful tangle of Tibetan prayer flags,” reports Time magazine’s Hannah Beech:
But on August 16, the base of the memorial was plastered with something new: pictures of Tsewang Norbu, a burly monk wearing sunglasses and a slight smirk.
On August 15, the monk from China’s Sichuan province set himself on fire. Even as he burned to death, he reportedly shouted slogans supporting freedom for Tibet.
The self-immolation was the second this year by a Tibetan monk in Sichuan. Both clerics, according to exile Tibetan organizations, were driven to desperation by a mounting Chinese crackdown on ethnic minorities and religious expression.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency acknowledged that Tsewang Norbu’s set himself ablaze but reported that authorities did not know why the 29-year-old had done so.
Certainly the official reaction toward the monasteries where the two monks lived was swift and harsh. After a monk named Phuntsog fatally doused himself with fuel in March, hundreds of his fellow monks at the Kirti monastery were forced to leave; surveillance continues to this day, according to Tibetan media.
Exile groups report that similar events are now unfolding at Tsewang Norbu’s Nyitso monastery, where Chinese security forces are ringing the complex and telecommunications have been severed.
In July, the monastery had defied a government ban by trying to celebrate the 76th birthday of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who lives in exile in Dharamsala. Beijing considers the Dalai Lama to be a dangerous secessionist; simply displaying his image can carry heavy repercussions in China.
In recent days, Nyitso monastery was essentially under police siege for having dared to venerate the Dalai Lama, say exiled monks with ties to the area, leading to the tinderbox atmosphere in which Tsewang Norbu lit himself on fire. Shortly before his self-immolation, the monk apparently passed out leaflets calling for Tibetan freedom and praising the Dalai Lama.