Teenage Tibetan monk self-immolates, dies: rights group

BEIJING (Reuters) - A teenage Tibetan Buddhist monk has set himself on fire and died in southwestern China, a rights group said, in the latest reported self-immolation by a monk denouncing Chinese policies in Tibet and demanding the return of the Dalai Lama.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last week the self-immolations were extreme acts to undermine stability in the region and had no popular support, the highest level comments since increased tension in January.

Nangdrol, 18, set himself ablaze Sunday in Ngaba (Aba in Chinese), a Tibetan populated area in Sichuan province, the London-based International Campaign for Tibet said in an email.

There have been as many as 23 burnings over the past year, not including Sunday’s incident, according to rights groups.

Monks refused to comply with police orders to hand over Nangdrol’s body, which was taken to a monastery where Buddhist rituals were performed for him, ICT said, quoting unidentified exile Tibetan sources. More than 1,000 Tibetans gathered to hold vigil, the group said.

For China, the self-immolations are a small, but potentially destabilising, challenge to policies toward minority groups and the region. The government has branded the immolators as “terrorists.

The government has repeatedly accused exiled Tibetans of stoking the protests, including spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising.

The Dalai Lama has blamed the self-immolations on “cultural genocide” by the Chinese, but has not directly called for them to stop.

Foreign advocacy groups say China stamps out religious freedom and culture in Tibet, a vast, largely mountainous region of western China in the Himalayas, under Chinese control since 1950.

The groups fear the burnings will continue or accelerate before the traditional Tibetan new year, which begins on February 22 amid an increased Chinese security presence in the region.

Security forces have clamped down in Tibet and other Tibetan areas of China, setting up road blocks and cutting off some communications, making it impossible for foreign journalists and others to independently verify conflicting accounts.

Advocacy groups say as many as seven Tibetans were shot dead and dozens wounded during protests in January. China’s official Xinhua news agency said police fired in self-defense on “mobs” that stormed police stations.

Reporting by Benjamin Kang Lim; Editing by Ron Popeski