Since March 2009, more than 140 people are known to have set themselves on fire inside Tibet to protest against the repressive Chinese occupation. Self-immolation protests peaked in 2012 when more than 80 took place. There have been far fewer since 2013 but they are still a feature of Tibetan resistance.
Although many monks and nuns have set themselves alight, most self-immolation protesters have not been from religious institutions. They include teachers, students and herdsmen, as well as mothers and fathers.
The youngest was just 15 years old.
Many of the protesters have shouted slogans while on fire, including calling for the Dalai Lama’s long life and his return to Tibet, for the Panchen Lama to be freed, and for human rights and freedom in Tibet.
Several have urged Tibetans to stay united and protect Tibetan identity, such as Tsering Gyal, a young monk who set himself on fire in November 2013. Before dying he told his companions on the way to the hospital: “Today I self-immolated for reunion of Tibetans inside and outside Tibet. My only wish for you is to be united and to work for the preservation of Tibetan language and tradition. If we do these things, Tibetans will be reunited.”
Some protesters have left final written and recorded messages.
Sonam Topgyal, a 27-year-old monk who staged a self-immolation protest in July 2015, left a letter saying that “Chinese authorities repress [Tibetans] with their violent and brutal law, by demolishing our religion, tradition and culture and causing environmental devastation. Meanwhile, people absolutely have no freedom of expression nor can they convey their grievances.”
Sangye Dolma, who set herself on fire in November 2012, left behind a self-portrait photo with the words “Tibet is an independent country” on her hand (pictured).
How does China respond to self-immolation protests?
The Chinese government has responded to the protests with a surge in activity by security forces, a propaganda campaign against the protesters and punishments for protester’s families and communities. Self-immolators who survived their protests have been detained and the whereabouts and condition of many of them is still unknown.
Severe punishments are handed out to those accused of assisting or encouraging the protesters or sharing information abroad. Frequently protesters' bodies are cremated by security forces to prevent families carrying out traditional funeral ceremonies. Local communities are threatened with punishment for holding prayer services or offering support to protesters' families.
China has described the protests as “violent behaviour whose aim is to create an atmosphere of terror” and accused the Dalai Lama of instigating the protests. The Dalai Lama has not called for an end to the protests but has expressed his "sadness" over them and urged the Chinese authorities to "investigate what is the cause of this symptom, of these events".