The rising practice of self-immolation follows severe government restrictions, an ebbing Tibetan identity, and reports of torture
A woman throws a white scarf over Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso as she burns on the street in Daofu, or Tawu in Tibetan, in this still image taken from video / Reuters
"Whenever they thought I was not telling the truth, the interrogator displayed a handcuff, an electric baton, and a handgun on the desk," Namgyal, a 37-year-old Tibetan monk, recalled to human rights workers. "[They] asked me: 'Which would you like to choose? Confession or tools?'" Namgyal, arrested in March of 2008 and accused of attempting to organize an anti-Chinese protest, was held for over a year without official charge.
During that time, he was tortured and beaten. At one point, he said, "I felt my body was split into pieces. The cuff went into my flesh. I felt I was going to die. I asked them to kill me." Then, he said, "They put me back on the floor. One of them pulled a handgun from a bag and said I should not close my eyes or I would reincarnate as a demon after I was shot dead. He pressed the gun onto my forehead and the gun clicked. Still I did not say anything."
Namgyal's treatment, not atypical for suspected Tibetan dissidents, is part of China's response to the growing attention activists there have received in the past several years, especially after a campaign of self-immolations among the area's monastics. As international media begins to cover the burnings -- so far, Time reports 8 cases this year alone and the Washington Post says there have been 15 since March -- the antecedents to this horrifying trend offer insight into a question that seems difficult to avoid: why would anyone choose to drink gasoline and then light him or herself on fire?