Sonam Topgyal, the monk who self-immolated on July 9 (2015) in the center of a city rebuilt by the Chinese authorities, had experienced imprisonment and the demolition of his family home before he set himself on fire.
Dzongsar monk Sonam Topgyal, who has died in hospital according to Tibetan sources, left a note tucked into his prayer book, saying that China’s policies are aimed at eradicating Tibet’s religion, culture and traditions, and destroying the environment. Tibetans have no recourse to express their views about the situation, he added in the note, which was discovered after his self-immolation.
According to information pieced together from different sources, it has become clear that Sonam Topgyal had directly experienced the impact of such policies, and intended his self-immolation to be viewed as a sacrifice in “witness to the truth”. He said in his note that: “The main aspiration of the [Tibetan] people is for Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso [His Holiness the Dalai Lama] to be able to return to the Potala Palace. Since we do not have freedom to voice the truth about our conditions, I had to sacrifice my life to be a witness of truth to the world in general and specifically to the Chinese government and people.”
The site of Sonam Topgyal’s self-immolation, pictured, was at the centre of Kyegudo, in the rural county of Yushu, which has been rebuilt as a new tourist city with a Chinese name following a devastating earthquake in 2010. The image of the location where the young monk set himself on fire shows that virtually none of the Tibetan features of the town remain; Tibetans were excluded from the reconstruction process although the area is a centuries-old center of Tibetan culture and religion.
Hundreds of Tibetans have held bold peaceful protests against government policies of reconstruction and allocation of land in Yushu, and an earlier self-immolation of a Tibetan woman in her forties in the area appears to have been linked to the confiscation of her residence.
In 2012, Sonam Topgyal’s father, a businessman called Tashi respected for his support of Tibetan culture and language, had part of his land confiscated as part of the ongoing rebuilding of Kyegudo (also known as Jyekundo or Kyegu) in Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province (the Tibetan area of Kham). On September 12, 2012, when Tashi was out of the house, his family, including Sonam Topgyal, was informed that the house was to be demolished. When they protested about this, Tashi’s wife Bode, Sonam Topgyal, his brother Sherab Dorje (who was studying in Beijing) and daughter Yangzom (a student in Xining) were all immediately detained. Once taken into custody, the house, as well as Tashi’s hotel and shop, was razed to the ground and the area fenced off for redevelopment.
It is not known how long Sonam Topgyal was detained in 2012, and he does not mention the family’s ordeal directly in the measured and detailed note he left behind, which is translated in full below.
After his family home was destroyed and his family detained, Sonam Topgyal’s father was also taken into custody and ‘disappeared’ for around three months. Tibetan writer Jamyang Kyi wrote: “This capable man suddenly disappeared for three months after the earthquake. His relatives found him after a month. After arrest he was taken to Chamdo [Chinese: Changdu] with a black hood covered over his head. When he reached there, he was forced to wear shoes filled with small stones and tortured by forcefully standing up all night and day. He was accused of instigating the people.”
Tashi, known as ‘Nangchen Tashi’ based on the place of his birth, in his late forties, was described as a “strong advocate of the preservation of Tibetan culture, religion, and language” by a source in his home county of Nangchen in Yushu, according to Radio Free Asia. About seven years before, Tashi had bought a large piece of land at a crossroads in the town where he built his home, a hotel, and restaurants. A source told Radio Free Asia: “During the 2010 earthquake, his buildings remained intact, but the Chinese authorities ordered him to hand over his land for the construction of a road through the area. He agreed to hand over a part of his land close to the road, with the understanding that the rest of his land would be left untouched,” the source said.
Tashi’s son Sonam Topgyal, a monk at Dzongsar monastery in Dege, Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi), Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham), set fire to himself just near Kyegudo’s main Gesar Square on July 9. Harrowing images emerged of him in flames lying on the ground. He is believed to have died after being taken to hospital by police.
A lack of recourse for Tibetans
In his note, Sonam Topgyal referred to the lack of recourse of Tibetans to express their grievances. Tibetan sources in exile with contacts in the Yushu area have told ICT that government authorities have claimed what the locals see as the best land area in the name of reconstruction, leaving many worried over the fate of their own property and how it will be affected. Sources in the area cited people’s concerns with the houses being built by Chinese authorities – often featureless concrete blocks that are too small for many of the Tibetan families, which often include several generations living together. Many see the reconstruction process as an excuse to move forward with the government’s controversial campaign for nomad settlement, a long-term plan by the authorities which is being advanced in all areas of Tibet, intensifying poverty and leading to social and economic breakdown in many areas. A western scholar who had spent time in the area after the earthquake told ICT: “The authorities are killing two birds with one stone, reconstruction after the earthquake and housing people in these places. It is grim.”
Protestors dispersed after three days of peaceful demonstrations against the reconstruction in 2011 included many Tibetans who had been injured in the quake, some of whom had lost limbs. The Chinese authorities also seized several thousand copies of a DVD movie about Tibetans’ responses to the earthquake, and a prominent local Tibetan abbot who was involved in making the film is now in prison. Khenpo Kartse, who was detained in December, 2013, was also involved in leading teams of monks to rescue victims and provide relief to survivors during the earthquake.
Khenpo Kartse (Karma Tsewang), who is serving a two and a half year sentence, is a respected abbot (Khenpo) at the Gongya Monastery in Nangchen, Yulshul (Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in Qinghai Province. He is believed to be unwell with a liver condition and has not been allowed access to his doctor.
The Tibetans’ wish for the Dalai Lama to return to the Potala
Sonam Topgyal’s note is translated from Tibetan into English below. It is dated July 1, nine days before his self-immolation in Kyegudo:
To the leaders of the Chinese government and in particular to the local heads of the minority nationalities:
I am from Nangchen [Nangqên], Yulshul [Yushu] in Tso-ngon [Qinghai Province]. I am 27 years old and am the middle son of Tashitsang of Nangchen. Currently, I am studying at Dzongsar Institute.
As people within and outside of the country are aware, without looking at the actual situation and condition of the minority nationalities, at this time the Chinese government solely implements suppressive and repressive policies towards the extinction of the nationality’s religion, tradition, and culture; undertaking activities leading to destruction of the environment. The public do not have any freedom of expression, and there is no way whatsoever for them to voice their grievances to the superiors.
Furthermore, when the people attempt to voice their truth and grievances to the superiors, instead of considering the people’s requests and grievances and deciding upon them, there is merely suppression and arrests. Through various deceptive ways, they clamp down upon the monasteries and monks and nuns. In short, they are attempting to carry out evil policies to completely wipe out the minority nationalities.
The main aspiration of us the people is for Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso [His Holiness the Dalai Lama] to be able to return to the Potala Palace. Since we do not have freedom to voice the truth about our conditions, I had to sacrifice my life to be a witness of truth to the world in general and specifically to the Chinese government and people.
My brethren of the same flesh and bone instead of behaving as though you have not heard anything or have no feelings, I urge you to bring together the power of unity and make all possible efforts so that this nationality’s just cause will be resolved in the future.
 A Tibetan woman in her forties called Dekyi Choezom self-immolated in Yushu on June 27, 2012 after protesting “against the confiscation of her residence”, according to various Tibetan reports. Some local residents believed she protested against “Chinese land policy and the unfair allocation of land” after the Yushu earthquake. ‘Tibetan Property Protests Result in Self-Immolation, Detention’, report by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, February 8, 2013, http://www.cecc.gov/publications/commission-analysis/tibetan-property-protests-result-in-self-immolation-detention
 ‘Misfortune Falls On Businessman Tashi from Nangchen’, by Jamyang Kyi, posted on her blog on September 15, 2012, translated into English by High Peaks Pure Earth, http://highpeakspureearth.com/2012/misfortune-falls-on-businessman-tashi-from-nangchen-by-jamyang-kyi/
 Following the quake in Kyegudo, the government had announced that in connection with Qinghai’s ‘urbanization drive’, the Yushu area would be rebuilt into a ‘city’ with a new Chinese name. On January, 2011, after the 6.9 magnitude earthquake a year before, Qinghai provincial governor Luo Huining said: “In light of the post-quake rebuilding work and Qinghai’s urbanization drive, we will build Yushu County into a city with a new temporary name of Sanjiangyuan [The Three River Sources].” ICT report, January 25, 2011, https://savetibet.org/chinese-authorities-rename-and-rebuild-quake-struck-tibetan-area-tibetans-excluded-from-planning/