BEIJING _ Three ethnic Tibetans set themselves on fire in the Chinese province of Sichuan on Friday, according to a rights group report over the weekend that if correct would bring the total number of self-immolations to 19 in less than a year.
The self-immolations are said to be in protest of Beijing’s policies toward Tibetan culture and religion, which critics describe as ranging from repressive to brutal.
Chinese officials regularly blame the protests and other discontent in Tibetan regions on plots by outside agitators led by the Dalai Lama.
Stretching from March 2011, the 19 fiery displays of discontent have resulted in at least 13 deaths, by rights groups’ accounts, and are unprecedented in modern Tibetan history. They’ve centered on two prefectures in north Sichuan, tracts of mountain land that, like Tibet itself, are formally referred to as autonomous areas but are in practice tightly controlled by Chinese government and security offices.
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There were scant details available about the three who’d reportedly lit themselves aflame on Friday morning. An advocacy group based in London, Free Tibet, said in a release that one of the Tibetans died and the two others were believed to have lived after the incident in Ganzi Prefecture, known in Tibetan as Kardze.
The majority of those who’ve committed self-immolations have been current or former Tibetan Buddhist clergy, but it’s not clear whether that was the case on Friday.
“The whereabouts and wellbeing of the two who survived are not known,” said the announcement by Free Tibet, which has an extensive network of contacts in the area. Free Tibet said that one of the survivors was about 60 years old, and the other in his early 30s.
"The identity of the Tibetan who died is unknown as are the details surrounding the self-immolations," the statement said.
A report Saturday by U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia cited unnamed sources as confirming the three self-immolations. The station noted that “a clampdown in communications by Chinese authorities” made information difficult to track.
Chinese police have set up roadblocks throughout the region and refused entry to foreign media trying to verify conflicting versions of events from rights groups and the government.
For example, accounts varied widely after police fired on a crowd in one Sichuan town on Jan. 23 and then another the following day. Rights groups said that at least four peaceful Tibetan protesters had been killed, with dozens more injured by gunshot wounds. Chinese officials acknowledged the incidents, putting the death toll at two, but said that security personnel were reacting to violent riots in which 24 police and firefighters were injured.
China Daily, a state newspaper, said that officials determined the confrontation was “well planned beforehand and instigated by trained separatists.”
Tibetan advocates, on the other hand, said the bloodshed was one more example of a cycle in which Tibetan complaints about an authoritarian government’s heavy-handed approach is answered only by more violence.
A few days later, news emerged of further trouble in Sichuan _ police on Jan. 26 had reportedly killed another Tibetan man.
It was not possible to confirm the details. Reporters continued to be turned back from the area.
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