Delhi immolation protester haunted by Tibet 'torture'

Abhaya Srivastava
Tibetan exile Janphel Yeshi is engulfed in flames after setting himself on fire during a protest in New Delhi. Friends and neighbours of the Tibetan protester who set himself alight in New Delhi said his actions were out of character but driven by desperation felt by many in his community

Friends and neighbours of the Tibetan protester who set himself alight in New Delhi said on Tuesday his actions were out of character but driven by desperation felt by many in his community.

Jamphel Yeshi lives in the Majnu ka Tila refugee enclave in the north of the city, a cramped area of narrow winding streets where thousands of Tibetan exiles have been based for decades after fleeing from China.

Many, like Yeshi, a 27-year-old who fled China in 2006, are young adults who have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as the Chinese government's religious repression in their homeland.

Tenzing Choegyal, a Tibetan Youth Congress activist, said his friend could never forget the "torture" he claimed to have suffered at the hands of Chinese authorities in Tibet.

"Yeshi was a political prisoner in Tibet. He was arrested twice by Chinese cops as he tried to escape. He said he was tortured badly before he finally managed to escape to India," said Choegyal, 31.

On Monday, Yeshi doused himself in fuel and lit himself while attending a protest against President Hu Jintao's planned visit to India this week for a summit.

He ran screaming down the street as flames engulfed his body before he collapsed with severe burns and was taken to hospital, where doctors say his life hangs in the balance.

Choegyal said that although Yeshi felt deeply frustrated over Tibet's fate, there were no signs that he planned a self-immolation attempt.

"Even on the morning, he was very normal. He went to the monastery in the colony as usual to light the lamps. He was cheerful," he said.

Dozens of Tibetans, many of them Buddhist monks and nuns, are reported to have set themselves on fire in Tibetan-inhabited areas of China since early 2011, but Yeshi's neighbours did not expect him to do the same.

"He is a very gentle guy. He loves reading and writing for hours," said Tsering Palmo, a 38-year-old housewife who lives next door to Yeshi's shared two-room flat.

"I saw him almost everyday. He would sit outside his house and read a lot."

Choegyal said he feared others in the exile community in India were becoming increasingly radical.

"Even on Monday, there was another person who was prepared to douse himself and die. But he was stopped in time," he said.

The Tibetan government in exile called on the community to "refrain from drastic actions" in a statement on Tuesday, adding that Tibetans outside of China had "freedom and space for conventional means of protests."

Yeshi, who lost his father at a young age, came to India via Nepal, but his mother still lives in Tibet, friends and family say.

He attended school in the Indian hill town of Dharamshala, home of Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, before moving to Delhi.

Without a permanent job, Yeshi has done translation work and arranged travel for Tibetans inside India and to Nepal.

"My cousin was a very gentle person. He did not have girlfriends and he did not drink or smoke," said 32-year-old Sonam Wangyal, speaking of Yeshi. "

But he seemed to know something about what China is doing in Tibet and that used to make him very angry. He would join any campaign, rally or anti-China protest in Delhi."

Since his protest, which made headlines around the world, Tibetans in Delhi have vowed to step up angry protests against President Hu and bring public attention to the Tibetan cause during the summit on Thursday.

Indian security forces have responded by pouring men into Majnu ka Tila to discourage protests and prevent any further self-immolation attempts.