• A Tibetan teenager, Sungdue Kyab, who survived self-immolation near Bora monastery in Sangchu in 2012, has been returned home two years later with both his legs amputated.
  • A Tibetan woman has been sentenced to three years in prison after she sought to help a Tibetan who set fire to himself, attempting to lift his charred body, according to one of her relatives. Two other Tibetans were sentenced to two years in connection with the same self-immolation as part of an intensified wave of repression in Tibet in which those allegedly “associated” with self-immolators, including friends, families and even entire communities, are charged with criminal offences, tortured and imprisoned.

Self-immolation and survival of Sungdue Kyab

Sungdue Kyab, then 17 years old, set fire to himself on the road to Bora monastery in Sangchu county, Gansu, on December 2, 2012. He survived his protest and was taken away by police, reportedly to the hospital in the city of Tsoe in Kanlho (Chinese: Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu province. His family sought information about his whereabouts and welfare from local officials on numerous occasions, but were met with no response.

According to the same sources, following the self-immolation, the authorities informed Sungdue Kyab’s family that he was receiving medical treatment and that they wanted to discuss amputation of his limbs. When the family responded querying the amputations, saying that they did not give permission unless it was absolutely medically necessary, they did not hear from the hospital or the authorities again, until he was returned to his home in late October – nearly two years after his self-immolation – with both his legs amputated, according to Tibetan sources. No information is available about whether the amputations were medically necessary or not.

Some other Tibetans who survive self-immolation – who are in a small minority – have had limbs amputated, although information is not known about the circumstances or medical necessity. Some Tibetans fear that amputations of limbs of those who survive self-immolation may follow a period of time in custody in which full medical treatment is not given. It is possible that infections can set in if medical care is neglected, which may make amputations more likely.

For example, Kirti monk Tapey not only received no treatment for his bullet wounds after he was shot when he set himself on fire in February, 2009, but the wounds were also not allowed to heal while he was in custody, according to Tibetan sources. Monks from Kirti monastery in exile in India said: “They did not allow the bullet wounds on his arms and legs to heal, but repeatedly re-opened them in the name of medical treatment.”[1]

In the case of Sungdue Kyab, it is not known how long he was held in detention and what medical treatment he was given in hospital. Others fear that amputations may be a form of punishment to the self-immolator.

A monk from eastern Tibet who escaped into exile told ICT that some Tibetans who survived self-immolation were kept isolated in hospital and remained in critical condition for many months. In one case, he heard that their body was so covered in blisters even doctors could not touch them, and a machine helped to turn them on the bed. He had heard that some self-immolators’ hands or legs had been amputated. “The suffering of Tibetans who survive self-immolation is unimaginable,” he said.[2]

Some Tibetans who have survived self-immolation, such as the first Tibetan to set fire to himself in Tibet in 2009, Tapey, are used by the authorities for propaganda purposes. A Chinese state media documentary in 2012 included statements from Tibetans who set themselves on fire and survived. Although it was not the intention, the official broadcast demonstrates the courage of the Tibetan self-immolators. Despite the pressure they must have been under to express regret for their actions, it is notable that Tapey simply talks about his physical condition, saying that most parts of his body have physically healed and that he can write slowly with one of his hands. Eighteen-year old Kirti monk Lobsang Kelsang, who set fire to himself on September 26, 2011, gives a similar succinct message to camera, omitting any mention of manipulation by ‘external forces’ and saying: “I have no words but thanks – doctors have given me another life, they all treat me well.”[3]

Prison sentences for Tibetans in wave of repression after self-immolations

A Tibetan nomad woman, Dolma Tso, who has a 12-year old daughter, was sentenced on November 3 in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) to three years in prison after enduring torture in detention. Dolma Tso had sought to lift the charred body of a young man, Kunchok Tseten, after his self-immolation on December 3, 2013. A Tibetan man, Tsang Kunmey, and another Tibetan male Tsang Gephel, were sentenced to three and two years respectively in prison in the same case, following the death of Kunchok Tseten, a father of two who set himself on fire in Meruma township in Ngaba, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo).[4]

A relative of Dolma Tso said that she had sought to accept responsibility and protect the two other Tibetans during interrogation when she was detained, despite enduring torture. But the Ngaba Peoples Intermediate Court where she was sentenced did not accept that she was the only person to come close to Kunchok Tseten’s body after his self-immolation, and sentenced two other Tibetans, saying that they picked up the body and attempted to put it in a vehicle, according to the same source.

Tibetan sources gave an account of Kunchok Tseten’s self-immolation, saying that he was heard shouting loudly as he ran down the road ablaze, calling for the long life of the Dalai Lama, for His Holiness to return to Tibet and for Tibetans to be reunited both inside Tibet and in exile, before collapsing to the ground. There were a number of eyewitnesses, and it is believed that Kunchok Tseten died on the scene. Some Tibetans then sought to protect the body and may have sought to prevent the authorities from taking it away; Dolma Tso among them. In Tibetan culture, when a person dies the body should be left undisturbed for some time while traditional prayers and rituals are carried out. A Tibetan source said: “If the authorities take away the body of a self-immolator, often they only return ashes to the family and they cannot carry out the prayers.”

The Tibetan sources also said that several hours after the self-immolation, a large armed police force was deployed to the area where Kunchok Tseten was born, and carried out raids on people’s houses, confiscating pictures of the Dalai Lama, and detaining some Tibetans including Dolma Tso. Kunchok Tseten’s wife and some of his relatives were also detained in the raids.

Dolma Tso’s brother Kungyam, who lives in exile in Dharamsala, India, said that his sister was falsely charged with murder for trying to prevent armed police from taking Kunchok Tseten’s body away. Kungyam said: “When Kunchok Tseten committed self-immolation, Dolma Tso tried to offer help by lifting up his charred body into the vehicle. For this act of generosity and help, the Chinese police arrested her on suspicion that she has had links with the self-immolation. While in detention, she was beaten and tortured severely.”

In a statement posted on social media following a press conference held in Dharamsala, India, by the former political prisoners’ organisation Gu Chu Sum, Kunsang said: “Along with Dolma Tso, on 3 December 2013, 20 Tibetans from Meruma, Ngaba, were arrested. Although some of them have been released, ten people have been kept in a detention center for eleven months, during which they were beaten and tortured severely. So far two monks from Kirti monastery, natives of Meruma, Tenpa and Lobsang Gyatso, have not been sentenced yet. The reasons are not known as to why they have not been sentenced. In connection with the same case, five other people from Meruma, whose identity remains unknown at the moment, have been sentenced to five years in prison.” (Tibet.net, December 6, 2014).[5]

Dolma Tso’s family have not been allowed to see her since she was detained. According to one report, she was seen his hospital in December, 2013, after the self-immolation, which may have indicated that she was receiving medical treatment following torture.

ICT has documented more than a hundred cases of Tibetans who have been imprisoned and tortured as part of a new drive to criminalize self-immolations. According to guidelines announced in the state media in 2012, Tibetans can be sentenced on homicide charges based on their alleged ‘intent’ and presumed ability to influence a Tibetan who has self-immolated. Since then, at least 11 Tibetans have been sentenced to prison terms or even to death on “intentional homicide” charges, because they allegedly have “aided” or “incited” others to self-immolate. In a number of cases documented by ICT, there is no evidence that those convicted either spoke to the self-immolator beforehand or even knew the self-immolator.[6]

[1] The Kirti monks are based in Dharamsala, India. The same sources said that when Tapey was taken to hospital after his self-immolation, he told his relatives: “I am not the son you wanted to see. I should have died that day, but I didn’t manage it.” See ICT report, ‘Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese policy’, https://savetibet.org/storm-in-the-grasslands-self-immolations-in-tibet-and-chinese-policy/

[2] ICT, June 20, 2014, https://savetibet.org/newsroom/eyewitness-insights-from-tibet/

[3] ICT report, ‘Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese policy’, https://savetibet.org/storm-in-the-grasslands-self-immolations-in-tibet-and-chinese-policy/

[4] ICT report, December 5, 2013: https://savetibet.org/tibetan-father-of-two-sets-fire-to-himself-in-ngaba/

[5] http://tibet.net/2014/11/06/eight-tibetans-sentenced-to-varying-prison-terms-over-self-immolation-links/

[6] ICT report, ‘Acts of Significant Evil: The Criminalization of Tibetan Self-immolations’, https://savetibet.org/acts-of-significant-evil/