125 Self-Immolations

Why Suicide By Fire Protests Continue in Tibet

January 2014

BY TENZIN THARCHEN

“I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them—each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts –to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.”

— Lama Sobha, in his final testimony, after setting himself afire on January 8, 2012. The testimony was found after his death, recorded in a tape cassette, wrapped in his robes

 

123 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009.  All but one of those self-immolations has occurred in the last two years. The latest took place this past November.

The number of self-immolations peaked in 2012, with 85 taking place that year. There were 27 in 2013.

102 of the self-immolators have died.

19 of the self-immolators were women.

The two oldest were in their sixties. The youngest was 15.  In all, 31 were teenagers, 59 were in their twenties, 13 in their thirties, eight in their forties, and three in their fifties.  53 were between 18 and 24 years old.

Not many details about the work of the self-immolators have emerged, so the record is incomplete. But what is known is that 40 were monks, 12 were former monks, six were students, four were nomads, three were farmers, one was a forest guard, and one was a writer.  13 have been reported to be parents–nine fathers and four mothers.

But what exactly did these 123 citizens hope to achieve through self-immolation? What difference has it made? And what, if any, change has occurred as a result
of the self-immolations?

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All of Tibet is essentially under lockdown. “Tibet” here corresponds roughly to what the Chinese government has designated the Tibet Autonomous Region, plus Tibetan areas of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai.  It’s a huge area–five times the size of France.

China is the largest country in the world ruled by a dictatorship and has one of the worst human rights records of any country. But at the same time, it’s one of the most rapidly changing societies, and the changes have brought about freedoms inconceivable in the Maoist era.  As long as you don’t publicly defy the Communist Party, as long as your pursuits don’t threaten the power or interests of Party officials, as long as you don’t have something the Communist Party wants, you are left alone to think and say whatever you want in private, to do whatever work you want.

Chinese-ruled Tibet, by contrast, is a totalitarian society under military occupation. No independent reporting is allowed in Tibet.  Chinese reporters must serve the state, and their reporting is more tightly controlled than in China.  Indeed, almost all Chinese reporting from Tibet comes directly from Xinhua, the official state news organ.  Foreign reporters are not allowed in Tibet except when accompanied by government minders on government-controlled itineraries.

Given such tight control of information, it’s amazing how much has gotten out about the self-immolations and other news the Chinese government would prefer no one know about.  Most information that “escapes” from there is sent out via cell phone and internet by ordinary people to Tibetan exiles, news organizations such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and Tibet advocacy groups such as International Campaign for Tibet, Free Tibet and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

Still, even though news of the self-immolations has emerged, I wonder whether or not there is any other place in the world where so many people could have killed themselves in such dramatic fashion with so little clear effect.

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Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010. This event is often credited with setting off the Arab Spring.  While that representation of cause and effect may be simplistic, it’s safe to say that Bouazizi’s self-immolation was probably the most influential in recent history, leading to revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen, and to the civil wars in Libya and Syria.

In contrast, the net result of the self-immolations in Tibet has arguably been nothing but an even harsher crackdown by the Chinese government–in a part of the world that was easily already one of the most oppressed before the self-immolations began.

Judging by the fact that all but one (in 2009) of the self-immolations occurred after Bouazizi’s, it’s safe to say that his act must have influenced them. The first wave of Tibetan self-immolators (beginning in March 2011) may also have hoped to set off larger demonstrations, though after those failed to materialize, it’s hard to imagine that more recent self-immolators had such hopes. If anything, what the self-immolations have set off is more self-immolations.

The self-immolations are almost certainly related to the demonstrations of 2008 that swept across Tibetan areas, the largest and most widespread since the Chinese occupation of Tibet began in 1950. (The first self-immolation of 2011 occurred on March 16, marking the third anniversary of those demonstrations.) The Chinese government’s response to the 2008 demonstrations was– as has been its response to almost every act of Tibetan self-assertion over the last thirty years—to increase political, religious, cultural social, and economic repression.

Within this context, one can read the self-immolations as being one of the few remaining acts Tibetans feel they have at their disposal.  The scope of action for the average Tibetan in advocating for the basic rights of his or her people has been narrowed to basically zero; the Chinese government has shut down just about every avenue.

Considering that there is no tradition of self-immolation as a form of protest in Tibetan history, and that the act is controversial from the Buddhist point of view, the self-immolations are a sign of just how heavy the repression is. Each is like a statement: What else do we have left? Many of the self-immolations have occurred in areas where the 2008 demonstrations were the biggest and where, subsequently, the Chinese government crackdown has been the hardest.

Few of the self-immolators have left messages that have found their way to the outside world.  Many are reported to have shouted, while on fire, calls for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet and for Tibetan freedom, as well as opposition to Chinese rule.  More generally, it appears that their reasons have also included concerns about cultural rights, religious rights, language rights, land rights, rights over natural resources, freedom of movement, and freedom to be educated as they wish.

It appears that the self-immolations have not been strategic, coordinated, calculated, or instrumentalist. That is to say, the self-immolators did not have a plan, according to which, if they set themselves on fire, this would happen, and then this, leading to this concrete result. The self-immolations were political protest but not pragmatic. If they hoped to be catalysts of change, it was not in the immediate sense of setting off a chain reaction. They were powerful acts of powerlessness. They were expressions of desperation without being acts of despair.

Unlike Bouazizi (who was slapped by a policewoman, had his vending cart confiscated, and had previously been abused by officials), as far as we know, none of the Tibetan self-immolators had personally been victims of specific Chinese government abuses targeting them, or had a specific grievance related to a personal experience.  In self-immolating, they were not representing themselves but representing their people–the general despair of their people–not their own personal despair. They killed themselves without killing others. They were not suicide bombers or “terrorists.” They turned the violence inflicted on their people inward on themselves, not outward on their oppressors.

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Who was the “target audience” of the self-immolators?  Did they wish the rest of the world beyond China to hear them?  Did they wish the Chinese government to listen and change its policies?  Or was their act first and foremost directed toward other Tibetans?

It is doubtful that Tibetans have much faith that the Chinese government will change its policies toward Tibet, or that the outside world can or will do much about their situation. To the extent that the world beyond the region has reacted at all, it’s mainly been in the form of statements by Western governments “expressing concern” (that anodyne diplomatic phrase that almost certainly means no other action will be taken). Most telling, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, visited China in December on the Chinese condition that he declare that he had no future plans to meet the Dalai Lama.

Later in December, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited China. At the top of his human rights agenda was the renewal of visas for journalists from The New York Times and Bloomberg News; the Chinese government, apparently in retaliation for reporting on the wealth and business connections of the families of top Chinese government officials, had delayed them. In other words, Tibet was nowhere.

With this in mind, to the extent that the self-immolations were a message to the Chinese government or the outside world at all, they simply said, “We still exist. We are still here. In spite of everything.”

For a culture, a people at risk, that itself can be a powerful statement.  But above all, the self-immolators’ message, whether intentionally or not, has resonated most with the Tibetan people–and it’s certainly amongst them where it’s had the biggest impact. “We are all Tibetans,” the self-immolations said. “We must stay united in the face of our oppressors.” This is something that almost all Tibetans feel deeply, and the self-immolations are an emphatic iteration of it. They are paradoxically acts of strength and acts of weakness. They take place in the face of an onslaught on Tibetan culture and people on a large scale.  In recent years, hundreds of thousands of nomads have been coercively relocated by the Chinese government, destroying a self-sustaining and sustainable way of life that has existed for centuries and is central to Tibetan identity. Monastic life, and therefore religious practice, has become ever more tightly controlled.  A great proportion of the economic growth and development has benefitted Han Chinese who have immigrated there from China. And, at root of all of the above occurrences, Tibetans have no say in major decisions affecting their lives.

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The Chinese government seems to deliberately misconstrue the self-immolations, claiming they’ve been incited and even controlled by “the Dalai clique,” even though there’s no evidence that the Dalai Lama or Tibetans in exile are in any way behind the self-immolations; in fact, their immediate reaction was astonishment. For the Chinese government to acknowledge Tibetan concerns and desires would mean having to respond to them, having to grant Tibetans a voice, and having to acknowledge that Tibetans have a different point of view. That’s something it is loathe to do, for it could be the beginning of admission of error, or of conflicting versions of truth. And to admit error could be the beginning of losing control.

The immediate response to the self-immolations has been to further militarize Tibetan areas, to carry out re-education campaigns in monasteries, requiring monks to denounce the Dalai Lama, and to criminalize acquaintance with self-immolators. Their friends, acquaintances, colleagues and family members have been arrested for supposedly inciting them in what appears to be a strategy of deterrence, the idea being that fewer people will consider self-immolating if they know in advance that their families and friends will suffer as a result. That is to say, the Chinese government response has essentially been to do more of what it was doing before.  The philosophy appears to be, “If it doesn’t work, just keep trying it again until it does. Tibetans only understand the iron fist; if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile.”

But in a certain sense, the Chinese government really doesn’t “get” Tibetans.  Its recipe for rule of Tibet in recent years has been tight political control and massive military deployment coupled with infusions of money for development and massive social engineering campaigns.  Material life has indeed improved for many Tibetans in recent years.  Whereas the nomad once rode a horse, now he has a motorcycle.  In getting rich, the logic goes, Tibetans will forget about religion, forget about themselves, and forget about the Dalai Lama.

Why hasn’t it worked?  Could it still work?  The Chinese don’t have any other clue about what to do, so they simply persevere with this policy. “The Dalai Lama will soon die,” they reason. “We are one billion, they are six million. We can wait them out. Time is on our side. The end game works in our favor.”

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From a certain point of view, 125 is not a large number.  More people suffer gun deaths in many U.S. cities in the course of a given year. For now, the uprising seems to be occurring in Tibetans’ hearts, and the self-immolations are the tip of the iceberg of that otherwise submerged uprising. On the one hand, it does seem possible that Tibetans as people with a distinct identity will one day cease to be. On the other, it appears the self-immolations have contributed to and been part of a revitalization of autonomous Tibetan culture and life, including political culture.  Recently, there has been civil disobedience in reaction to a Chinese government campaign to force people to fly the flag of the People’s Republic of China.  Students in many Tibetan areas have protested the lack of Tibetan-language textbooks in schools.  Everywhere you look, Tibetans are encouraging each other to speak Tibetan and reject Chinese as a language of communication amongst themselves.

This uprising of the heart worries the Chinese, and that’s why Tibet under China is best characterized as a totalitarian place, since what the Chinese government wishes to do is not just monopolize political power and control all aspects of society but also to get inside of Tibetan hearts and stamp out the Dalai Lama and all that he represents–for what he really represents is a separate Tibet beyond Chinese control.

In this light, two images and an anecdote I recently came across are revealing.  A young Tibetan woman living in exile showed both images to me recently.  She received them via WeChat, a Chinese app. They were sent by her cousin, who then immediately deleted them on his phone.  (The Chinese government has been cracking down on people sending “sensitive” information and images abroad.) The young woman comes from a remote area in what Tibetans call Kham, the eastern part of what the Chinese call the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The first image she showed me was of the main square of her hometown. It was packed with Chinese soldiers armed with rifles standing in formation. And this, in an area where, over the last five turbulent years throughout many areas where Tibetans live, there has been no political action at all. The people there did not participate in the 2008 demonstrations.  No self-immolations have taken place there.  And yet the main square is stuffed full of soldiers.

Meanwhile, she told an anecdote about the lamas in her hometown telling people to eat less meat.  This was at the behest of the Dalai Lama, who in recent years has called for Tibetans to do just that. Given that he hasn’t lived in Tibet since 1959 and the Chinese government prevents any open transmission of his messages, it’s impressive that his call reached to such remote areas and that the lamas and the daily lives of people are so influenced by him, even in such matters as diet.

The second image is of an essay her cousin wrote. It’s in perfect Tibetan script. He’d obviously taken great care with his handwriting, and that was part of the point. The contents of the essay were pretty run-of-the-mill, calling on Tibetans to not smoke, not drink, not gamble, to only speak Tibetan (pure Tibetan), to teach proper Tibetan to their children, and to make sure to pass their religion on to their children. I’ve seen many similar calls in recent months and years. But insofar as an ordinary Tibetan, a nomad, wrote it and it was addressed to all Tibetans, it was an assertion of national identity, a call for self-preservation and cultural regeneration in the face of external threat. Though the essay was not explicitly political, if those soldiers in the main square of his hometown found it, he would be arrested.

But they can’t root it out of his mind. The essay was an exercise in self-reliance, in refusal to become a dependent of the Chinese. It was anti-colonial in spirit, a refusal to be mentally colonized.

I’ve often been impressed with how well Tibetans, both inside and outside of Tibet, have dealt with 60-plus years of occupation. They’ve built their own parallel institutions in exile, corresponding to ones in Tibet that the Chinese destroyed or co-opted. They’ve preserved their own identity in a totalitarian state that seeks to extinguish it.  But there’s also been a high price to pay. Sometimes Tibetans remind me of Native Americans, decimated and humiliated, plagued by alcoholism, dysfunctional and broken families, heartbroken, demoralized at a very basic spiritual level. In this context, the cousin’s essay was a call for self-respect, for recognizing that self-respect is a fundamental form of self-preservation and resistance.

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Tibetan leaders in exile—and here I am thinking primarily of the Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay, the Kalon Tripa (or prime minister) of the Tibetan government-in-exile—have been ambivalent in their statements on the self-immolations.  On the one hand, they sympathize and say the self-immolations are reactions to Chinese oppression.  On the other, they’ve called for them to cease. They’ve emphasized the precious value of life and the need to preserve it.  The Dalai Lama’s statements have probably had some effect on the tapering off of the self-immolations (from a height of 85 in 2012 to 28 in 2013), though that may also have something to do with the harsh Chinese government response.

It‘s ironic that the Chinese government blames everything it doesn’t like in Tibet on the Dalai Lama since in the matter of the self-immolations, as well as many other developments in Tibet, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile have basically been bystanders, spectators.

One of the most striking things about the 2008 demonstrations and the self-immolations is that the initiatives were entirely those of ordinary Tibetans.  Arguably, they point to the exhaustion, the failure of the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach (essentially, accepting Chinese sovereignty over Tibet in exchange for genuine autonomy). Apart from the question of the correctness of the approach (many Tibetans advocate outright independence and still feel pain at the Dalai Lama’s relinquishing his insistence on it), it only works if you have an adversary willing to meet you halfway, and so far the Chinese government has not even acknowledged the other side’s right to speak on its own behalf, or even that another side exists.

In response to the 2008 demonstrations, the Dalai Lama organized a conference in Dharamsala of the great and good amongst the Tibetan diaspora to reexamine strategy and policy. The outcome of the conference was underwhelming; the consensus was to continue to follow the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way approach. It was the clearest sign yet that the Tibetan elites in exile simply don’t know what to do.

In a sense, neither the Chinese government nor the Dalai Lama knows what to do. Both just continue to act habitually. So increasingly, ordinary people in Tibet are stepping into the breach. They don’t have the power and they don’t have a solution, but they feel that something must be done.

The self-immolations show Tibetans are still there, that they’ve maintained a separate identity, whether anyone but Tibetans is listening or not.

Tenzin Tharchen is the pseudonym of a commentator living in China. 

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