Largest protest in living memory in Rebkong after father sets himself on fire

Monday, 19 March 2012

Largest protest in living memory in Rebkong after father sets himself on fire


Several thousand Tibetans gathered in Rongwo, the capital of Rebkong County, Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Eastern Tibet (1) following the death of a local man who set himself on fire this morning. An eyewiness said:

“This is the biggest gathering of people I have ever seen in this place. People are pouring in from the villages."

Sonam Dargye (2), a father of three, set fire to himself near Rongwo town centre, at approximately 9:40am local time. He died at the scene.

Sonam was a very close friend of Jamyang Palden, the monk who set himself on fire on 14 March in Rongwo (3) and who is believed to be alive but critically ill. Sonam and Jamyang had travelled on pilgrimages together, including to Lhasa.

Sonam travelled the 20-minute journey from his village into Rongwo yesterday and stayed in a hotel overnight. On waking he washed himself, prayed and then drank petrol. He walked out of the hotel, shouted: “Let His Holiness return to Tibet” and then set himself on fire.

Shocking images (4) shared at great risk only hours after Sonam died show Sonam’s charred body and the extent of his injuries. In two photographs his body is still partly in flames. Locals have already placed the ceremonial khatas (ceremonial scarves) over his body.

People could hear his cries and, seeing him in flames, quickly gathered. According to an eyewitness, and as can be confirmed from photographs, the flames engulfed Sonam and his intent to die was clear.

Sonam’s wife and other relatives are distraught but are described as not angry that he chose to die as they believe his decision to give his life was important and noble.

Sonam’s possessions were found on the bed in his hotel room.

Thousands of Tibetans protest

Local Tibetans carried Sonam’s body to Dolma Square (5), the main town square where Sonam’s friend self-immolated only three days ago (6). They carried his body around the golden Tara statue in the centre of the square and then laid it down on the ground.

As news of the self-immolation spread quickly by telephone, several thousand gathered. Monks urged those who gathered to act peacefully and observe non-violence.

A photograph (7) shows monks offering prayers in the square with Sonam’s body covered in ceremonial khatas. His badly burnt face can be seen in the middle of the picture with portraits of the Dalai Lama placed next to his body.

Paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP) trucks arrived at the scene and a small confrontation between lay Tibetans and the paramilitary broke out. A source described how some Tibetans “were ready to fight”. Some Tibetan people mediated and the military vehicles withdrew. It is believed that the paramilitary forces had to withdraw given the vast numbers of Tibetans present.

Free Tibet Director Stephanie Brigden said:

Today we are witnessing one of the largest protests in Tibet since 2008.

“A Tibetan father of three has given his life, one of over 25 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire for freedom in the last year. Rumours are spreading that if 200 Tibetans set themselves on fire then this will trigger a response from the United Nations; such misplaced faith in the international community, which has failed to respond to Tibetan calls for freedom, is gut-wrenching.

“The uprising in Tibet could not come at a more sensitive time, as the authoritarian Chinese regime prepares for the handover of power to the next group of unelected leaders. Their greatest hope is to pass on a legacy of a ‘one harmonious China’ but the truth is Tibet is in flames and this is rocking China’s very foundations.”

At approximately 11am local time, monks and Tibetan people took Sonam’s body for cremation to Dongyalle hill (8) which is behind Rongwo Monastery. This site is ordinarily reserved for monks, but as they consider him a hero he was given this ceremonial funeral at this sacred location. The gathering was monitored by paramilitary forces who were in a school near the hill. Paramilitary forces are also patrolling the town and checking vehicles as they enter Rongwo Town.

Chinese state security forces have been unable to stop the flood of what is described as thousands of people coming to join the gathering. The Tibetans are chanting mantras and prayers for the long life of the Dalai Lama. Approximately 600 people from Sonam’s village (9) joined the gathering.

After the cremation, people started calling for freedom, for the long life and return of the Dalai Lama, and marched from the cremation site to Rongwo town centre. Other people from the town joined them on the streets as they marched. According to an eyewitness, hundreds of local people are continuing to protest in the streets.


Notes to Editors

1) Chinese: Tongren, Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai.

2) Sonam Dargye’s background:
Sonam, in his early forties, was a farmer and carpenter. He said recently: "His Holiness the Dalai Lama must return to Tibet. If he returns, Tibet’s problems will be solved. If not, the future of Tibet is unsure. So we have to make our best effort to ensure the return of His Holiness."

Sonam Dargye had three children: two sons and one daughter. His wife’s name is Dolkar Tso. His father has died but his mother is alive and in her seventies. He was from Shabrang Village(Ch: Xia bu lang), Nyanthok Township(Ch: Nian du hu), Rebkong County.


Unprecedented footage of a protest involving hundreds of Tibetans following this self-immolation on 14 March 2012 is avaialble here:

For further information about self-immolations and protests across Tibet:

4) Please be aware that these images are distressing and show the charred body of Sonam Dargye:

5) Aerial photograph of Rongwo:

6) See footnote 3 above.

7) Photograph of people praying at Sonam Dargye’s body:

8) Photgraph of people making their way to Dongyalle hill

9) See footnote 2 above.

Free Tibet is an international campaigning organisation that stands for the right of Tibetans to determine their own future. We campaign for an end to the Chinese occupation of Tibet and for the fundamental human rights of Tibetans to be respected.

For further information and interviews please contact Free Tibet’s Director Stephanie Brigden:
M: +44 7971 479 515
T: +44 207 324 4605