BEIJING — Two Tibetan monks set themselves on fire Monday in a protest over China’s tight rein over Buddhist practices, a rights group said as the Chinese government reiterated it will choose the next Dalai Lama.
The London-based Free Tibet campaign said Lobsang Kalsang and Lobsang Konchok, both believed to be 18 or 19 years old, self-immolated Monday at the Kirti Monastery in Sichuan province’s Aba prefectuture.
The monks allegedly called for religious freedom and said “long live the Dalai Lama” before they set themselves on fire, Free Tibet said in an emailed statement.
The official Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report that did not identify the monks by name that both were rescued by police, suffered slight burns and were in stable condition.
Lobsang Kelsang is the brother of Rigzin Phuntsog, a 21-year-old Kirti monk who died March 16 after setting himself on fire, said Free Tibet. Phuntsog’s death was seen as a protest against China’s heavy-handed controls on Tibetan Buddhism and provoked a standoff between security forces and monks.
A man who answered the phone Monday at the Kirti Monastery’s Administration Committee said he was not aware of any reports of monks setting themselves alight. He refused to give his name.
Calls to the county and prefecture-level Public Security Bureau in Aba both rang unanswered Monday.
Aba has been the scene of numerous protests over the past several years against the Chinese government. Most are led by monks who are fiercely loyal to Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled the Himalayan region in 1959 amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule and is reviled by Beijing.
Also on Monday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that it has never been up to the Dalai Lama to pick his own successor and that Beijing will identify who is the next incarnation of the Tibetan spiritual leader.
China reviles the Dalai Lama as a separatist and wants to pick a pro-Beijing successor. The Dalai Lama insists he is only seeking increased autonomy for Tibet, not independence, and opposes Beijing’s involvement in selecting its leaders.
On Saturday, the 76-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate said that if he is to be reincarnated he will leave clear written instructions about the process. He said in a statement that when he is “about 90” he will consult Buddhist scholars to evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue at all.
But Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a daily news conference that Dalai Lamas have never decided on their own successors.
“I would like to point out the title of the Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government and is otherwise illegal. The 14th Dalai Lama was approved by the then republican government,” Hong said. “There has never been a practice of the Dalai Lama identifying his own successor.”
China has said that religious law requires that the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama be born in a Tibetan area under Chinese control. The Dalai Lama has said his successor could be born in exile and has even floated the idea of choosing his own successor while still alive — perhaps even a woman.
In his statement Saturday, he said if the institution of the Dalai Lama were to continue, then he would leave behind “clear written instructions about it.”
“Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
The Dalai Lama has lived in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala since fleeing Tibet. China says Tibet has always been part of its territory, but many Tibetans say the region was virtually independent for centuries.