On 17 October, a 20-year-old nun named Tenzin Wangmo from Mamae nunnery in Ngaba, in northeastern Tibet, set herself on fire while shouting ‘Free Tibet!’ Since February 2009, nine youths in Tibet, on average barely twenty years old, have burned themselves in protest. Wangmo, who died from her burns, was the first nun to do so.
Buddhists believe that the possibility of being reborn as a human is extremely rare. In addition, Tibetans believe that a suicide significantly pushes back the possibility of the soul being born a human, requiring at least 500 rebirths in other forms first. Despite these beliefs and the fact that they are being trained in the fundamental teaching of compassion and respect for all sentient lives – which includes their own – Buddhist monks and nuns are now dousing themselves in kerosene and lighting themselves on fire at an alarming frequency.
The reason for this act of desperation lies in the Tibetan aspiration for freedom denied by the Beijing government. Two days earlier, when 19-year-old Norbu Damdul set himself on fire, he cried, ‘Independence for Tibet! Return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet!’ But Beijing’s failure to understand this and instead heighten, in the words of China director for Human Rights Watch Sophie Richardson, ‘security measures designed to curtail the right to free expression, association, and religious belief in Tibetan monasteries’ have ratcheted up tensions in regions such as Ngaba.
The situation in Ngaba, where most of the self-immolations are taking place, has now reached a critical state, especially with Beijing’s increased spending on security leading to monastery blockades, the mass detention of monks and mandatory rules for monks to obtain official permits even to go out of their monastic compounds. Earlier this year, the supply of water and electricity to Kirti Monastery was cut off and visitors, including monks’ relatives, were banned from entering the monastery compound. According to an assessment report published about ten days ago by Human Rights Watch, Beijing’s spending on ‘public security’ in Ngaba is 4.5 times higher than in other counties in Sichuan province.
Panoramic view of Ngaba District with Kirti Monastery at the left.
Photo: Dharamsala, India
In an attempt to improve security, the Chinese authorities have stationed an armed garrison at each of the three main gates leading to the Kirti compound; another armed contingent occupies a 20-room section within the monastery. Moreover, the monastic area has been carved into five sections, each divided into fifty smaller divisions, which are further divided into smaller units for easier security control and to subject the monks to ‘patriotic education’ and what are known as ‘strike hard’ campaigns. These latter programmes, which involve the virtual imprisonment of confining monks to their rooms, includes intense ideological ‘education’, such as requiring the 2500 or so monks to repeat statements such as ‘I oppose the Dalai clique’, ‘I will not follow splittism’, ‘I love the Communist Party’ and ‘I recognise the Party’s great kindness’.
For many observers, the demand for freedoms by the monks of Kirti monastery and Beijing’s responses symbolise the core of a longstanding problem. Beijing’s heavy-handed reactions to public dissent – whether in 1989, when Chinese students protested on Tiananmen Square; or in 2008, during the popular protests in both Tibet and Xinjiang; or during the current repression in Ngaba – have been shown time and again to provide only temporary solutions. Leaving the root causes of these demonstrations unaddressed means that the protests in Ngaba will continue, and the number of Tibetans wanting to die for the freedom struggle is almost certain to rise.
The Chinese government must realise that the increased armed security deployments in Tibet, particularly in Ngaba, have been a major factor in continued protests in which monks and former monks are setting themselves on fire, as their ultimate form of non-violent action. Merely putting out the fire and then beating the victim – as was done in the case of Damdul, of 20-year-old Khaying and 18-year-old Choephel on 7 October – will only exacerbate the problem. (While both Khaying and Choephel have since died, no information is yet available on Damdul’s medical condition or whereabouts.)
Self-immolation as a demonstration of protest could be indicative of frustration felt beyond Ngaba. Beijing cannot cover up this anger simply by building more roads and railways. When freedom of movement was severely curtailed in Ngaba, Tibetan farmers and householders papered their goats with slogans such as Free Tibet. The Chinese leadership must face the fact that resistance will continue until Tibetans are allowed their legal right to self-determination.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
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