The number of self-immolations in Tibet has now reached 144 with the death of another protester just last month, according to activists and human rights groups speaking to HKFP ahead of the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising on Thursday.

According to NGOs Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet, since February 2009 there have been 144 cases of self-immolation in autonomous region. In 2016, there has thus far been one case of self-immolation inside Tibet, and one that took place outside the region, while in 2015 there were seven self-immolations.

Most of the protests that took place last year were about specific grievances such as land grabs, or solo protests with individuals displaying banned pictures of the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan flag in prominent places, Free Tibet said.

dalai lama
Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama speaks at a school in Katoomba, west of Sydney, June 8, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Jason Reed.

A second railway

Meanwhile, many voiced concerns over the announcement last week that a second railway is to be built between China and Tibet, fearing adverse impacts on the environment and the tightening of Chinese control over the region.

When the second railway to Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, is completed, travellers will be able to reach the Chinese-ruled territory from the city of Chengdu via the 1,800-km line in around 15 hours, according to Xinhua.

Tibetan governor Losang Jamcan told Tibetan delegates at a National People’s Congress meeting that the government believes the project will bring more economic benefits and prosperity, while Padma Choling, a senior Tibetan official, stressed that the environment will be well protected, AP reported.

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Qingzang railway, opened in 2006. Photo: Jan Reurink via Wikicommons.

The first China-Lhasa railway was opened in 2006, a 1,956-km line that passes through the Tibetan highlands. Although the railway facilitated economic development in the district, many groups are concerned about the role the rail line will play in China’s ability to control the region.

Free Tibet’s Alistair Currie told HKFP that although economic development was important, the existing railway had caused an inflow of Chinese workers and tourists, and an outflow of Tibetan resources; it also made it easier for the government to deploy forces to suppress Tibetan resistance.

“Economic development in Tibet disproportionately favours Chinese people, Chinese businesses and the Chinese government and unless policies change this railway is likely to exacerbate that rather than improve it,” Currie said. “Tibetans work very hard to protect their national and religious identity but are already outnumbered by Chinese people in many urban areas.”

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File photo: HKFP.

“When it comes to protecting the Tibetan environment, the central and regional governments make a lot of noise about the efforts being made but their priority remains resource exploitation. Mining, damming and moving Tibetans off their land continue in Tibet with little regard for the natural environment,” he added.

Other activists’ groups were also sceptical. “Infrastructure development like a railway should be preceded by environmental and social impact assessments that are transparent and provide an opportunity for participation by those affected,” Executive Director of Human Rights in China Sharon Hom told HKFP. “What are the benefits to the Tibetan people living there? Have the authorities addressed the impacts on the fragile ecosystem in Tibet?”

Tibet has been under Chinese control since the 1950s. Beijing claims that Tibetans enjoy extensive freedoms and has long denied accusations of political and religious repression. The current Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, was exiled from Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against the Chinese occupation.

Karen is a journalist and writer covering politics and legal affairs in Hong Kong for HKFP. She has also written features on human rights, public space, regional legal developments, social and grassroots activism, and arts & culture. She is a BA and LLB graduate from the University of Hong Kong.