The string of self-immolations inside Tibet – started in 2009 by a Kirti Monastery monk named Tapey and which most recently claimed two monks in Barkham County on 30 March – shows no sign of letting up. On the contrary, despite the Chinese government unleashing one of its harshest crackdown to date, despite state paranoia and military repression even more acute than during the clampdown on the 2008 uprising, and despite the abysmal response from the international community, an incredible wind seems to be fanning across occupied Tibet – a wind at once frightening, and pregnant with hope.
While analysts scramble to offer logical explanations for these horrific protests, many of them regurgitate the obvious and overlook the vital. If anything, the self-immolations suggest three undeniable truths. One: the Tibetan freedom struggle’s patience has snapped. Two: these protests embody the movement’s radicalisation, which was a long time coming. And three: Tibetans inside Tibet, and not the exile leadership or the diaspora, drive the narrative of the struggle. As with the ground on which they fell, the 33 self-immolators (32 of them in the last year alone), embers falling from their bodies like rosary beads, have left the landscape of the Tibetan freedom movement irreparably scorched and irredeemably altered.
One recurring point of reference has been the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who, photographed as he burned in meditation pose in Saigon in 1963, is immortalised in what remains the most iconic image of self-immolation as protest. The Vietnamese self-immolator was protesting against the religious persecution of the country’s Buddhist population by the Roman Catholic administration ruling Vietnam at the time. Thich Quang Duc and those Vietnamese who later followed his example were all from the monastic community. To a great extent the same is also true of Tibetan self-immolators, the majority of whom have been monks or nuns. The parallel, however, stops there.
Beyond that, ascribing any exaggerated religious impulse to the self-immolations is unwarranted. Doing so amounts to fabrication, and is a disservice to those who have sacrificed their lives. While some such distortions are simply ill articulated, others are downright manipulative. A case in point is an article titled ‘Man on Fire’ (Himal Southasian, 10 February 2012) written by Bhuchung K Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), who termed the self-immolations a precursor to a ‘Tibetan Buddhist Liberation Theology’.
Bhuchung’s emphasis on religion, supported by quotes from an obscure Peruvian priest, could have been dismissed as banality had the article’s overall implications not been so damaging. As vice president of a generously funded Tibet advocacy group established to lobby for support from the US government, Bhuchung’s position has made him one of the foremost advocates of the ‘Middle Way’. Bhuchung’s utterances have typically centred on censoring Tibetans’ political nationalism and independence aspirations. His writings, even on crises such as the one currently unfolding in Tibet, read almost like brochures for a Buddhist spiritual utopia.
In his Himal piece, Bhuchung’s purpose is seemingly to discredit any pro-independence reading of the fiery protests. Citing his response to the first Tibetan self-immolation in 1998, Bhuchung pats himself on the back for having ‘warned against reactions that unintentionally glorified death’, before quoting his own piece in the Tibetan Review at that time:
Thupten Ngodup’s action was the result of the courage of his conviction. Interpreting it in any other way so as to bolster a short-term political objective would not be doing justice to Thupten’s action. We should not take his action as a model…for other Tibetan freedom fighters to follow.
Bhuchung’s chastisement is presumably directed at those who advocate Tibet’s complete independence, among them the exiled political activist Jamyang Norbu who, shortly after Thupten Ngodup’s self-immolation, wrote a studied piece on the political motives and implications of such an action. Thupten Ngodup, a dedicated member of the Tibetan Youth Congress – the oldest and most influential Tibetan NGO committed to restoring independence – set himself alight when the Delhi Police forcibly interrupted a hunger strike unto death demanding, among other things, urgent UN intervention in Tibet. Yet Bhuchung conveniently sidesteps these details. As for how Thupten Ngodup’s action could have been motivated by anything but his clearly political goals, one is offered little clue.
Furthermore, in trying to portray monks as apolitical actors, Bhuchung’s simplistic interpretation discounts the complex political roles Tibetan monks have played throughout history, both during factional infighting within Tibet and in the armed struggle against Chinese Communist occupation. In the 1940s, the trenchant rivalry between the regent Redring and the incumbent Tagthra, both high reincarnate lamas who at various times led the Tibetan administration when the current Dalai Lama was a minor, saw monks from the two camps engage in fierce battles. Many monks, among them the 13th Dalai Lama, played pivotal roles in battles for Tibet’s independence in 1912-13, when the last imperial Chinese soldiers were driven out. At the time, the monk Kalon Jampa Tendar disrobed and took up arms to lead the Tibetan army. The paradox of Tibetan Buddhist sensibilities is best encapsulated in the words of Rathu Ngawang, a former Tibetan resistance fighter. In Shadow Circus, a documentary on the CIA-backed Tibetan armed resistance of the 1960s and 1970s, he says: ‘My father would tell us…the Communist Chinese are enemies of Buddhism. So, since they were enemies of Buddhism, we never felt it was a sin to kill them. In fact we were happy to kill as many as we could. When we kill an animal, we say a prayer, but when we killed a Chinese, no prayer came to our lips.’
To say that politics was secondary to religion for those monks and former monks would be unsubstantiated. It was just that the terms and symbols describing individual or national political identity were not widely used. In a vocabulary-rich civilisation where a single reincarnate lama’s title could fill up several pages, the term ‘politics’ at best denoted administration, which was in turn understood to mean a system for the flourishing of Buddhism. It warrants mentioning that in old Tibet, while flags and banners of every religious stripe were ubiquitous, the Tibetan national flag was very rarely used other than by the ragtag Tibetan army. As a national symbol, the flag became popular only after Tibetans were forced into exile.
This, however, cannot be construed to mean that the Tibetans did not hold their nation’s political sovereignty paramount, just as it cannot be argued that by calling for Tibetan freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama the self-immolators were not pointedly and politically defying fifty-three years of bloody Chinese occupation.
If the self-immolations carry any religious connotation, it is the concept of Lu ski Chonme Phul wa (offering one’s body as flame). By turning themselves into human bonfires, these courageous protestors shed light on the suffering of the larger Tibetan population under the heel of tyrannical Chinese rule, and gave that suffering a visible, visceral manifestation.
The self-immolations represent a new level of resistance and defiance. The fates of those following more conventional forms of resistance such demonstrations, pamphleteering and postering are ultimately controlled by the Chinese authorities. Dissenters are inevitably arrested, imprisoned and tortured, to die in prison or be released back into the society years later as mere shells of their former selves. Self-immolation, on the other hand, grants protestors greater control over their bodies, and a precious finality to their expression of resistance. One burns, one dies, refusing the tormentors any claim over one’s body. It amounts to an unequivocal rejection of the oppressor state. There will be no revocation of the kind normally extracted from protestors after intense torture by Chinese soldiers.
More than any ulterior Buddhist motives, the self-immolators seem driven by pure anger at the Chinese government, primarily though not only for its unrelenting religious persecution. The state-enforced patriotic re-education campaign instituted in 1994 requires all monks and nuns to pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist government, denounce the Dalai Lama as a counter-revolutionary and a separatist, and accept the Chinese-appointed Gyaltse Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama over Gedun Choekyi Nyima, the candidate chosen by the Dalai Lama. Incidentally, Gedun Choekyi Nyima was abducted in 1995 at the age of six, and his whereabouts have since remained unknown. To the monks and nuns perennially exposed to arrest, expulsion, torture and death for simply wanting to practice their religion, China’s oppressive policies carry a singular message: Tibetan culture, and the Buddhism that is an intrinsic part of it, simply cannot co-exist with Communist China.
This realisation lays bare the contradiction inherent in the Middle Way approach, which hopes that Communist China will allow Tibet cultural autonomy as a reward for giving up its independence. The self-immolations can be seen as a direct response to the failure of the Middle Way policy, which frames dialogue with China as an end in itself, and not as a means to an end. If this passive strategy required its proponents to wait and bide their time, the self-immolators have demonstrated it to be an unviable option. As one early self immolator stated: ‘Let alone living under the Communist China for one more day, I cannot even live for one more minute.’
The rate of self-immolations increased noticeably a week after Lobsang Sangay assumed prime ministership of the Tibetan government-in-exile in April 2011 following the Dalai Lama’s complete political retirement. The first self-immolation in Tibet took place in February 2009. The second one occurred two years later, five months before the historic power shift in exile leadership. At the swearing-in ceremony, the new prime minister stated, ‘Let me be clear: the Tibetan Administration does not encourage protest [in Tibet] in part because we cannot forget the harsh response Chinese authorities hand down in the face of free and peaceful expression.’ Within a week, a third self-immolation was reported.
Since then, an average of three to four such protests have taken place in Tibet every month, mostly concentrated in the erstwhile provinces of Kham and Amdo. These fiery self-sacrifices have prompted massive gatherings which have on at least two occasions erupted into open revolt. In January, Chinese soldiers shot into crowds of protestors in Ngaba and Kartze, killing at least ten people. When Lobsang Sangay reminded Tibetans that it was not to him alone that the Dalai Lama had devolved his power, the self-immolators might have taken the concluding remarks of his speech to heart: ‘Let us never forget: during our lifetime, our freedom struggle will meet the fate of justice or defeat. Tibet will either appear or disappear from the map of the world.’
This synchronicity of events is not accidental. Invisible lines of communication connect Tibetans inside Tibet and their exile counterparts. Their dialogue is unspoken and cryptic. No instructions, orders or appeals are involved. Over the Himalayan divide, at least, no overt call to action has ever been made. Given this scenario, China’s allegation that the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government-in-exile are behind the self-immolations is absurd. Still, developments in Dharamsala continue to affect events inside Chinese-occupied Tibet, and vice versa.
The 1987 uprising serves as a good example. The revolt, which began with a protest on 27 September outside Lhasa’s Jokhang cathedral, had roots in an event halfway across the world – the Dalai Lama’s address to the US Congressional Human Rights Caucus. This was the first time the Tibetan leader had been accorded such a high-profile platform, and he used the opportunity to introduce the Five Point Peace Plan, which laid the basis for what would become his Middle Way approach.
The Dalai Lama’s time in the global spotlight irked Beijing, and its propaganda stepped up its denunciation campaigns, accusing the Dalai Lama of colluding with ‘Western Imperialists’ to further their ‘split-ist’ designs of tearing Tibet away from China. Jampa Tsering, a monk from the Ganden Monastery who was among the first protestors in the subsequent wave of unrest, later told this writer, ‘We knew the risks were enormous, but we had to do something. We felt staying silent would be construed to mean we agreed with China’s defamation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.’ And so, on a frosty September morning, Jampa and his fellow monk-protestors circumambulated the Jokhang cathedral three times, then took out their hand-drawn Tibetan flags and shouted slogans demanding Tibetan independence. Within minutes Chinese soldiers showed up, beat the protestors and drove them away. But the façade of calm that had reigned for almost three decades had cracked. This unprecedented defiance sparked off a series of open revolts, and thanks to images smuggled out by Western tourists Tibet was once again making newspaper headlines.
The following year continued the cycle of courageous defiance. In 1988 the Dalai Lama addressed members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. In what became known as the Strasbourg Proposal, the Dalai Lama expanded the fifth item of the previous year’s Five Points Peace Plan, declaring it central to his China policy henceforth. Tibetan independence was now officially eschewed as a goal of the Tibetan struggle. In its place, the three provinces of Tibet were to become an autonomous entity under the Beijing’s political sovereignty in return for cultural autonomy. Meanwhile, even as the exile leadership engineered the surrender of Tibetan independence, inside Tibet the revolt continued. A year later in 1989, as Tibet reeled under martial law, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The 2008 uprisings that shocked the world began with a procession of some 300 monks from the Drepung Monastery on Lhasa’s outskirts to the city centre. The monks’ main demand was the release of Drepung monks who had been detained the previous October for whitewashing a wall in celebration of the conferment of the US Congressional Gold Medal upon the Dalai Lama. This protest kicked off a revolt that spread across the entire Tibetan plateau, with the unprecedented participation not just of monks and nuns, but also of laypeople of all ages and backgrounds. The Chinese paramilitary crackdown that followed spawned the bloodiest reprisals the country had seen since the uprisings of the 1980s.
The exile Free Tibet movement responded with equal vigour. Activists across the world successfully stripped the Olympic torch relay of its perceived glory and turned Beijing’s bid for international legitimacy into a magnet for shame. This injected renewed vitality into Tibet’s struggle for freedom, and a new sense of hope prevailed. In India, Nepal and elsewhere in the world, activists from the Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a Free Tibet, the Tibetan Women’s Association and other organisations forged an unbroken link of protests, dispelling any illusion Beijing may have held of a respite in resistance.
While the exile administration waited for Beijing to respond to its overtures, Free Tibet activists had brought the fight to China’s door. The Beijing Olympics protests triggered a media frenzy, but there was precious little international attention or diplomatic support for those who wanted a Tibetan future different from the one envisioned by the government-in-exile. The world’s attention soon turned elsewhere, but Beijing understood, as clearly did the exile activists, that the force driving the narrative of Tibet’s struggle lay inside Tibet. As if cued by voices from behind the Himalayas, the diaspora assumed a certain autonomy of its own through the decentralisation of resistance. While Tibetans’ spiritual allegiance to the Dalai Lama remained unwavering, every second Tibetan on social network sites had a new middle name: Rangzen (Independence).
Against this background, the self-immolation in Delhi of 27-year-old Jamphel Yeshi assumes immeasurable importance. A recent escapee from Tibet, and by all accounts an unassuming youth with a devout turn of mind and an inexhaustible appetite for Tibetan history, Jamphel bolted across the Jantar Mantar ground in a raging cloud of flames during a Tibetan demonstration protesting Chinese president Hu Jintao’s visit to India. The Chinese-imposed media blackout meant that the 30-odd self-immolations inside Tibet were communicated to the rest of the world only through a few grainy and obscure images. Jamphel Yeshi’s burning figure, however, more than satiated the world’s appetite for photographic evidence. While China had rendered protestors inside Tibet largely invisible, Jamphel Yeshi escalated the radicalisation of the Tibetan freedom struggle in a single stroke. Before he succumbed to his burns two days later, Jamphel had given Tibetan self-immolators a face. That face was splashed across the screens and front pages of the international media, and it was the face of a man on fire, as befitting the seething country he stood for.
It is no accident that the site of Jamphel Yeshi’s sacrifice was the same ground that witnessed the first Tibetan self-immolation in 1998. While some have argued that the more recent self-immolators inside Tibet were inspired by Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation unleashed the Arab Spring, given Chinese censorship of the Arab uprisings it is more likely that their inspiration came from a closer source – Thupten Ngodup, the Tibetan exile whose self-immolation first shook the Tibetan world. In becoming the second Tibetan exile to self-immolate, Jamphel Yeshi has completed the circle. And this time, if the world fails to act, that circle might become a prayer wheel that keeps on spinning, leaving China struggling to control a country of men and women in flames.
~ Topden Tsering is former editor of the Tibetan Bulletin and former president of the San Francisco chapter of the Tibetan Youth Congress. He lives in Berkeley, California and has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeley Daily Planet, India Site and Global Post, among others.