UPDATED AUGUST 19, 2011: The state media confirmed that Tsewang Norbu had been swiftly cremated on Wednesday, evidence that the Kardze Party Secretary’s instructions for a prompt cremation were followed. Xinhua reported that Nyitso monk Tsewang Norbu (Chinese transliteration: Tsongwon Norbu) had been “cremated Wednesday in accordance with Tibetan rituals”, according to the local government. (Xinhua in English, August 17).

Tsewang Norbu

Tsewang Norbu, 29, was identified as the monk who died by self-immolation.

A Tibetan monk, 29-year old Tsewang Norbu, died yesterday in Kardze, Sichuan, after setting fire to himself and calling for freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Tsewang Norbu, a monk from Nyitso monastery in Tawu, drank petrol before immolating himself and died soon afterwards, according to Tibetan exiles in contact with the area. It is the third self-immolation by a Tibetan monk; the self-immolation of 20-year old Kirti monk Phuntsog on March 16, who also called for the long life of the Dalai Lama during his protest, was followed by a violent crackdown in the Ngaba (Chinese: Aba) area of Sichuan. Troops have now surrounded Tsewang Norbu’s monastery, an important historic center of Tibetan religious culture, and there are fears for the safety of the monks and local people.

In a rare instance of prompt reporting on such an incident, the Chinese state media confirmed the death of a Buddhist monk shortly afterwards, with Xinhua stating: “it was unclear why he had burnt himself”, and that the local government had launched an investigation. (Xinhua, August 15). Last month in the same area – Tawu (or Dawu, Chinese: Daofu) is in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) – hundreds of Tibetans took the risk of celebrating the Dalai Lama’s birthday.

A hotel receptionist near the scene of Tsewang Norbu’s death told AFP that the monk had been distributing leaflets, saying: “I saw a monk lying on the ground and burning, he died right in front of the county government building.” (AFP, August 15).

According to a Tibetan from the area who is now in exile, Tsewang Norbu’s body was taken back to his monastery after the incident, and the entire area is under tight lockdown. According to reports received from other Tibetan exiles, troops surrounded the monastery after the self-immolation and as monks attempted to carry Tsewang Norbu’s body back to Nyitso. The Dharamsala-based Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported today that thousands of local Tibetans went to the monastery and tried to gain access; those who could not go past armed police at the gates performed prayers outside. From today onwards, according to the same report, access to the monastery has been severely restricted with Tibetan monks unable to leave, and visitors unable to gain entry.

Consistent with the actions of the authorities following the earlier self-immolation by a Kirti monk in March, the local town is also under lockdown with schools, restaurants and cafes closed today. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported that the Kardze Party Secretary had ordered an end to religious rituals for the deceased monk.

Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet, said: “The agonizing death of this young monk Tsewang Norbu – the third such self-immolation in Tibet – underscores the desperation Tibetans are feeling under the current political and security crackdown. In the past months many Tibetans in Kardze — monks, nuns and laypeople — have risked their lives to demonstrate their loyalty to the Dalai Lama and their opposition to the actions of the Chinese state. This terrible incident underscores the urgent need for the Chinese government to engage the Dalai Lama on the question of Tibet’s future so that other Tibetans like Tsewang Norbu who are so frustrated with the repressive policies in Tibet can hope for a just solution.”

Little information has reached the outside world about Tsewang Norbu, also known as Norko, due to systematic efforts by the authorities to block information flow from Tibet. Tsewang Norbu’s monastery, Nyitso (Gelugpa), is located within Tawu county town and is populated by more than 200 monks (prior to the Cultural Revolution nearly 2,000 monks are believed to have been based there). Nyitso has more than 400 years of history and is recognised as a protected heritage site in Sichuan. Monks from other areas of Kham and Amdo frequently come to Nyitso to study, and while monks from Nyitso also travel elsewhere for study. There is a school within the monastery for young monks who learn grammar, philosophical debate, Buddhism, history, poetry and literature, taught in the Tibetan language.

The self-immolation of 20-year Kirti monk Phuntsog on March 16 was followed by a military crackdown in the Ngaba area; monks were taken from the monastery and subjected to brutal torture, and two local Tibetans in their sixties died after attempting to defend monks from being taken away by armed troops (ICT report, New developments at Kirti Monastery; crackdown shows no sign of easing). A Kirti monk called Tapey was shot by police when he set himself on fire on February 27, 2009. He survived, but his whereabouts is unknown (ICT report, Monk in Tibet sets himself on fire; shot by police during protest).

Tibetans in Tawu celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday; new cycle of protests in Kardze

Tsewang Norbu’s self-immolation in Tawu follows another remarkable assertion of loyalty to the Dalai Lama when hundreds of Tibetans marked the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6 despite a heavy security crackdown. Remarkable photos from the area depict plumes of incense smoke arising from houses on a hillside as a religious offering on the Dalai Lama’s birthday. In another area of Kardze, hundreds of police were deployed in order to prevent similar peaceful celebrations of the birthday at a holy mountain on July 6.

Since early June a new wave of protests and dissent has taken place in the main county town and surrounding area of Kardze, long known for its strong sense of Tibetan identity and nationalism.

Tibetans in Kardze have been experiencing severe repression and fear under a crackdown imposed since March, 2008, when protests swept across the region and continued in 2009. A new wave of protests began over the past two months, resulting in at least 30 Tibetans, including some senior monks, nuns and laypeople, being detained in at least 15 separate peaceful demonstrations calling for freedom, the release of local and respected religious teachers, and for the Dalai Lama to return home. As a result, and at the time of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, the lockdown of the area has been significantly intensified.