Kelsang Gyaltsen, an envoy of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibet's leader in exile, told EUobserver in Brussels that Phuntsog must have felt "deeply disturbed" because it is against Buddhist teaching to take any form of life. "In Buddhism, the most important factor is motivation. If someone takes his own life in order to draw attention to the problems of other Tibetans, because they feel that there is nothing else they can do, because of this motivation the act is not considered an act of violence," he said.
When Phuntsog, a 20-year-old Buddhist monk, set himself on fire in China in March, police beat him while his body continued to burn, but his suicide led only to an even harder crackdown on native Tibetans. According to reports, authorities censored news of the incident, imposed a military blockade on the Ngaba region where it took place, killed people and arrested 300 monks in the Kirti monastery.
Speaking on the eve of Van Rompuy's trip to Beijing, Gyaltsen urged the top EU official to confront China on human rights just as the US did earlier this week. He said Van Rompuy should ask to send an EU delegation to visit Ngaba, seek assurances of better day-to-day treatment of Tibetans and urge Beijing to resume bilateral talks with the exiled Tibetan government in India on a final settlement for the province.
"If the Chinese side does not show any positive signs, if it brushes off the concerns expressed by the EU, he should make public the EU's disappointment and criticise the despicable situation in Tibet," Gyaltsen noted. "If the EU does not take this opportunity, it will send a very bad signal to hardliners in China that they can continue to abuse the rights of Tibetan people with impunity from the international community."
Van Rompuy recently praised Arab revolutionaries. But he has a mixed record on defending EU values. Last November, he blocked government-critical Chinese journalists from entering his Justus Lipsius building in Brussels for a press conference with Chinese leaders. Then he let them in, but cancelled the press event in order not to upset his guests.
Asked by EUobsever if he will mention Tibet this weekend, Van Rompuy's spokesman Dirk De Backer declined to give details. "We will speak about human rights, of course," he said. "If we speak about human rights, Tibet is also part of human rights." Asked if Van Rompuy is concerned about the crackdown in Tibet, he added: "Going to China, you are asking a very sensitive question. It's a very, very sensitive question ... How shall I say it? There are meetings that are foreseen and we will see what is the outcome."
For her part, EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton at EU-China talks in Budapest on Thursday (12 May) asked about Gao Zhiseng, a dissident who vanished one year ago. But she did not mention Ai WeiWei, a government-critical artist arrested in April. Her deputy, David O'Sullivan, said she mentioned Gao amid "signs of mutual respect that we have different systems and different ways of doing business."
Asked by press in Budapest if Ai is alive, Chinese deputy foreign minister Fu Ying said: "Your question surprises me ... I didn't know you had so little confidence in China's political and judicial system." She said Ai broke the law and that "it is very condescending for Europeans to tell China that some people are beyond the law."
The Dalai Lama's envoy noted that China seeks international recognition, pointing to its effort in staging the 2008 Olympics and its hostile reaction when another jailed dissident won the 2010 Nobel prize.
Gyaltsen, who is lives in Zurich, said many Europeans care about Tibet. "People in former Communist countries understand the situation in Tibet because they remember their own experience ... in Western Europe, the general public has a lot of information about Tibet. There is a lot of support."
Why the EU matters
"Many MEPs have praised the Tibetan elections and congratulated Tibetan people on the implementation of democratic processes and institutions. The European Parliament has traditionally played a key role in reflecting public opinion and advancing policy on Tibet by adopting resolutions condemning the deterioration of human rights and promoting a peaceful solution to the problem through dialogue between the Dalai Lama or his envoys and Chinese leaders", said Mr. Vincent Metten, EU Policy Director of the International Campaign for Tibet.
"However, the European Union remains cautious in weighing its concerns about the worsening situation of human rights in Tibet against its desire to avoid confrontation with China on what Beijing now calls a core interest of territorial integrity. Of course, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile are repeatedly on record seeking to advance genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the People's Republic of China and not a return to an independent Tibet, said Mr. Vincent.
"The meeting in Beijing between Chinese President Hu Jintao and President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy in mid-May, the next China-EU Strategic Dialogue and the EU-China Human Rights Dialogue, foreseen for June in Beijing, represent certainly three appropriate opportunities for the EU to address the deterioration of the human rights situation in China and Tibet in a clear, strong, constructive and, if necessary, public way", he further added.