Lobsang Kelsang and Lobsang Kunchok

The two teenage monks who set themselves on fire in the Tibetan area of Ngaba on September 26, 2011. The dates of the photographs are unknown.

Two teenage monks from Kirti monastery set fire to themselves this morning in the Tibetan area of Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), while shouting “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” The Chinese state media reported the incident today and stated that both monks were still alive, although their whereabouts and welfare remain unknown. It is the third incident of self-immolation by Tibetan monks this year, and according to exile Tibetan sources, one of the monks is related to Phuntsog, the 20-year old Kirti monk who set fire to himself on March 16 leading to the current crackdown in the area.

The two monks, named by exiled Tibetan monks as Lobsang Kelsang and Lobsang Kunchok, set themselves on fire this morning at around 11am in Ngaba town, near Kirti monastery. According to exile Tibetan sources, they shouted slogans including calling for religious freedom. Police extinguished the flames and took them into custody.

In a statement released today from Chengdu, the Sichuan provincial capital, Xinhua stated that both monks were alive and receiving medical treatment for burns, although it was not possible to confirm this. As news of the incident emerged, some exile sources stated that one of the monks may have died before being taken away.

According to exile sources, both monks are approximately 18 years old, had been educated at the monastery for some years, and are from Me’uruma township in Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Amdo).

Their protest follows the death of 29-year old monk Tsewang Norbu on August 16 in Kardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, 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 (ICT report, Troops surround monastery as Tibetan monk dies after setting himself on fire & calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet). As with the self-immolations at Kirti, troops surrounded Tsewang Norbu’s monastery, an important historic center of Tibetan religious culture, and the situation there remains tense.

A Kirti monk called Tapey who survived after setting fire to himself as a protest on February 27, 2009, has not been seen since. Tapey, in his mid-twenties, set himself on fire after local authorities told monks at Kirti monastery that they were not allowed to observe Monlam, a traditional prayer festival that is held after Tibetan New Year (Losar). According to several sources from the area, police opened fire on Tapey as he was surrounded by flames. The official Chinese press reported the incident, but denied reports that police had opened fire on Tapey. Tapey survived, but was taken into custody and his whereabouts remain unknown.

“Since the self-immolation of young monk Phuntsog in March, Kirti monks have ‘disappeared’ and returned, broken by torture; several hundred of them have been removed for so-called ‘legal education,’ two laypeople have been killed in trying to protect the monks, and the presence of armed troops has made religious practice almost impossible,” said Mary Beth Markey, President of the International Campaign for Tibet. “These latest, desperate acts of anguish by two more young monks point to the urgent need for an end to such stifling and repressive measures in Ngaba. Suicide is seen as the worst kind of taking of life and prohibited according to Tibetan Buddhist principles, so their actions are a measure of the anguish these young monks feel. The recent self-immolations by Tibetan monks in the face of the intense pressure Tibet’s monastic community is under makes clear that only a change in China’s policies can put an end to the cycle of desperation that has compelled these Tibetans to sacrifice so much,” added Markey.

Twenty-year old Phuntsog, who died after setting fire to himself in the main market area of Ngaba town on March 16, was protesting against the crackdown in the area and government policies, according to Tibetans in exile. March 16 was the third anniversary of a major demonstration at Kirti in 2008 during which at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead, including a 16-year old schoolgirl. Two monks from Kirti monastery in exile in Dharamsala said: “The protest took place to mark the frustration and anger of the Tibetan people three years after the protests on March 16, 2008 in Ngaba.” (ICT report, Protests, tensions escalate in Ngaba following self-immolation of monk: Kirti monastery under lockdown). Two Tibetans, Donko, aged 60, and Sherkyi, aged 65, were killed when police “mercilessly” beat a group of laypeople – mainly in their sixties or older – who had been standing vigil at the gates of Kirti monastery when paramilitary police raided the monastery on April 21 and took over 300 monks away, according to exile sources in contact with people in the area. “People had their arms and legs broken, one old woman had her leg broken in three places, and cloth was stuffed in their mouths to stifle their screams,” said an exiled Kirti monk. (ICT report, Two elderly Tibetans killed as hundreds of monks detained from Kirti; crackdown deepens).

Last month, three Kirti monks were imprisoned for between 10 and 13 years for “intentional homicide” linked to Phuntsog’s death. The sentencing appears to be purely political; there is no evidence that the three monks had any involvement in Phuntsog’s solitary act of self-immolation or subsequent death, other than possibly seeking to protect him from further harm before he died in hospital. One of the monks sentenced, Losang Tsondru, is Phuntsog’s uncle. (ICT report, Monks imprisoned for 10-13 years following self-immolation by Kirti monk).

Self-immolation is a new form of protest or sacrifice in Tibet. The first known Tibetan self-immolation occurred in exile on April 27, 1998, when Thupten Ngodup set fire to himself during a hunger strike in Delhi. He later died in hospital.