BEIJING (AP) — A man set himself on fire and died in western China’s Sichuan province in the first self-immolation protest among Tibetans this year, monitoring groups reported Thursday.
Tsekho Tugchak, reportedly in his 40s, died in Ngaba county on Wednesday amid intensified security in the restive region ahead of the anniversary of a 2008 anti-China riot and 1959 independence uprising, the International Campaign for Tibet said.
ICT said his death was the 153rd self-immolation by a Tibetan since the protests began in 2009. The Free Tibet Campaign and U.S.-backed Radio Free Asia also reported the death, saying it took place in Ngaba’s Meruma township.
In Beijing, Tibet’s Communist Party chief — the region’s most powerful official — dismissed the reports.
“I don’t think they’re telling the truth,” Wu Yingjie told reporters at a meeting on the sidelines of the annual session of China’s ceremonial parliament.
“If such self-immolations happened in the United States, it really wouldn’t be that weird, but I can tell you that in Tibet that these kinds of self-immolation incidents don’t happen,” Wu said.
The self-immolations by Tibetans monks, nuns and laypeople aim to highlight harsh Chinese rule and the oppression of Tibet’s Buddhist culture, as well as appeal for the return of the exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The region is closed to foreign media, making it virtually impossible to confirm reported self-immolations, which are believed to have peaked in 2012 with 83 that year.
Staff members reached at police headquarters, government offices and the local propaganda department in Ngaba, also known by its Chinese name, Aba, said they had no knowledge of the case. All declined to give their names as is usual among Chinese bureaucrats.
China claims Tibet, including Ngaba, has been part of its territory for more than seven centuries and regards the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist.
Many Tibetans insist they were essentially independent for most of that time and have protested what they regard as China’s heavy-handed rule imposed after the People’s Liberation Army’s battled its way into the Himalayan region in 1950.
The prime minister of the self-declared Tibetan government-in-exile in India, Lobsang Sangay, expressed concern over the reported self-immolation and called on China to address what he called Tibetans’ legitimate grievances.
“Such sacrifices by Tibetans in Tibet evidence that repression in Tibet under the Chinese rule is making lives unlivable,” Sangay said in a statement from the north Indian town of Dharmsala, where his government has its headquarters.
“The issue of Tibet can be best resolved amicably through the middle way approach, by resuming dialogue with the Tibetan representatives,” he said, referring to the Dalai Lama’s call for Tibet to be granted true autonomy while remaining under Chinese rule as Beijing originally promised.
Associated Press video journalist Dake Kang in Beijing and writer Ashok Sharma in New Delhi contributed to this report.