The following article was orginally published by Himal and can be viewed on their website here »

By Bhuchung K Tsering

The recent spate of self-immolation could point to a new radicalisation of Tibet’s struggle.

On 27 February 2009, Tapey, a Tibetan monk in his 20s, walked from the Kirti Monastery, in Amdo (in today’s Sichuan province), to the nearby crossroads in the town market. His garment was drenched in oil. Upon reaching the crossroads, he set himself on fire, unfurled a homemade Tibetan flag bearing a photo of the Dalai Lama and shouted slogans. Before people could hear what he was saying, members of the People’s Armed Police intervened and shot at Tapey. When he fell, they took him away.

That incident turned out to be the first of many such self-immolations in Tibetan areas. It also seems to have set a precedent for a new direction in Tibetan activism. In March 2011, another Tibetan, Phuntsok, committed self-immolation; by the end of January 2012, at least 15 others have done so. Twelve of these are known to have died. Even as this article is being written, during the first week of February, there are reports of three more Tibetans having self-immolated. A common demand of these individuals has been the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet and freedom for the Tibetan people.

Most of the self-immolators were from Kirti Monastery. Its head lama, Kirti Rinpoche, who resides in Dharamsala, has said that the self-immolations are the result of wounds suffered by three generations of Tibetans. During the 1930s, the first generation suffered when Chinese communists raided the Kirti area while on their Long March; during the 1960s, the second generation suffered prior to and during the Cultural Revolution; and since the late 1990s, the third generation of Tibetans has suffered on account of so-called Patriotic Education and related campaigns put in place by the Chinese government.

For its part, the Chinese government’s initial reaction to the recent spate of self-immolations was one of denial. As the number of these incidents continued to increase, Chinese officials sought to deflect blame by humiliating the Tibetans, declaring the self-immolators to be criminals and saying their actions were instigated by ‘the Dalai clique’. They also attempted to minimise the political significance of these actions by portraying them in the light of economic protest, suggesting that they are effects of globalisation – though how exactly they make that connection has never been explained. To counter any allegation that they have neglected Tibet, Chinese authorities have highlighted the monetary assistance that is being rendered to the Tibetans.

The critical factor in this string of self-immolations is that the Chinese government is victim of its own decision to link the Tibetan issue with the survival of the Communist Party of China (CPC). In its failure to understand the nature of Tibetan identity, which is inseparable from Tibetan religion and culture, the Chinese leadership looks at Tibetans’ adherence to their traditional mores and to the reign of the Communist Party as being mutually exclusive.

A flourishing nationalism

Today, the Chinese government sees the very existence of a distinct Tibetan identity as a political statement. As a result of this thinking, Chinese officials are attempting to sever the relationship between the Dalai Lama (a symbol of Tibetan identity) and the Tibetan people. These efforts include a continued ban on portraits of the Dalai Lama. News is currently coming in from Tibet that Tibetans who went to India to receive the Kalachakra teachings from the Dalai Lama in January are now being detained and interrogated upon their return, and that sacred protections cords are being confiscated. Since most of the self-immolations have taken place in Tibetan regions that were not under the control of the Tibetan government at the time of the Chinese communist takeover, the tie between Tibetans in these areas and Lhasa or the Dalai Lama should be seen by China primarily as spiritual and cultural, not political.

Chinese policies have therefore led to the growth – if not outright origin – of Tibetan Buddhist nationalism. Ironically, China’s short-sighted clampdown on Tibetan Buddhism has caused a feeling of unity among Tibetans to solidify, both within the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and in all traditional Tibetan areas, something the Chinese government was trying to discourage in the first place. Mandating that all Tibetan monasteries hang portraits of the four Chinese leaders – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – as the TAR administration did in December 2011 as part of its ‘Nine Possession’ decree, will only add to the provocation.

In fact, the religious basis of Tibetan identity should have been apparent to the Chinese Communist authorities from the time they first invaded Tibet, in 1950. Tibetan nationalism was primarily centred on religion. Tibetans called the Chinese invaders tendra (Enemy of the Faith), and the most renowned Tibetan resistance force was called tensung thanglang maggar (Voluntary Force for the Defence of the Faith).

Instead, this year, Chinese leaders sent to Tibetan monasteries over the Chinese New Year to offer ‘Spring Festival greetings’ had no qualms about preaching their real message of ten-lhing sung-kyong (maintaining stability) and providing monetary incentives for the monks to keep the peace. It certainly says much about the credibility of Chinese rule in Tibet that, even after 50 years, the Chinese leadership’s main message remains ‘stability’.

Offering of light

In any case, the recent Tibetan self-immolations have taken place in remote areas. Further, most of these individuals have left behind no statement indicating that publicity – for themselves or their cause – was among their main objectives. Instead, these were actions undertaken by people who simply felt the need to fight, in some way, the injustice they were experiencing. An audio testament left behind by Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche (known popularly as Sobha Tulku), who died on 8 January 2012 after self-immolating, may be the only concrete document left behind thus far. In his statement, Sobha Tulku said:

this is the year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died. I am sacrificing my body both to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood, and to seek repentance through this highest tantric honour of offering one’s body. This is not to seek personal fame or glory.

A look at how the Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh described the self-immolators in Vietnam during the 1960s may help us to better understand Sobha Tulku’s words. In a letter to civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr in 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh explained:

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not men. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.

That sentiment was echoed by Sobha Tulku: ‘I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering.’

The Tibetan self-immolators were challenging political, cultural, religious and social injustices, the roots of which are deeper than any mere material developments could assuage. What US columnist Thomas L Friedman wrote about Egypt and Russia in the New York Times on 31 January 2012, in a column titled ‘The Politics of Dignity’, is also applicable to Tibet. Friedman wrote:

the political eruptions in both countries were not initially driven by any particular ideology but rather by the most human of emotions – the quest for dignity and justice. Humiliation is the single most underestimated force in politics. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you force people to live indefinitely inside a rigged game that is flaunted in their face or make them feel like cattle that can be passed by one leader to his son or one politician to another, eventually they’ll explode.

In a way, the self-immolations could be a new form of Tibetan Buddhist liberation theology in the making. In the words of Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest credited with coining the term, liberation theology is about emancipation of the poor, the marginalised and the oppressed from ‘those things that limit their capacity to develop themselves freely and in dignity.’ Similarly, Deane William Ferm, a religion scholar, in his Third World Liberation Theologies, says that liberation theology ‘stresses liberation from all forms of human oppression: social, economic, political, racial, sexual, environmental, religious.’ These forms of oppression are essential features of the environment in which the Tibetan Buddhists have committed their self-immolations.

Father Gutiérrez has also talked about ‘witnessing several new expressions of this theology in different contexts and continents – North America, Central and South America, Africa and Asia.’ We now have a Tibetan version of liberation theology, similar to the ‘engaged Buddhism’ of Buddhist political activists in places like Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Tsampa Revolution

Foreign governments have also been taking note of these developments in Tibet. Even though Time magazine listed the Tibetan self-immolations as one of the ‘Top 10 Underreported Stories’ of 2011, whatever information we have indicates that these incidents have in fact led to intense discussions within government circles in numerous capitals as well as among their respective embassies in Beijing. In particular, governments seem concerned with how the movement could develop hereafter. When the latest self-immolations were taking place, the CPC’s point-person on Tibet was on a visit to Germany, trying to put the party’s point of view across to the German government.

Indeed, if these self-immolations are forerunners of a radicalised Tibetan movement, then the Chinese government is greatly mistaken to think that this trend can be stopped by increasing restrictions, including those on movement, the Internet and other communication channels. Tibetans will look for, and find, different ways to express themselves. In the wake of the pan-Tibetan uprising in 2008, the Chinese authorities thought they had resolved the situation by quelling it with force. But the self-immolations have clearly indicated that the Chinese approach at that time was no permanent solution. Therefore, the latest stringent restrictions will only increase the sense of injustice and discrimination felt by Tibetans. Leaving aside political aspirations, as long as Tibetans continue to be denied the opportunity to live a life of equality, respect and dignity, it is clear that they will undertake actions to convey their feelings.

Chinese writer Wang Lixiong had an interesting solution in a recent online posting titled ‘Except self-immolation, what else can be done?’ Wang says people need to show the Tibetans some way of finding answers. His feeling is that ‘getting Tibet out of this crisis should start from village autonomy.’ He was referring to recent developments in the village of Wukan in Guangdong province, where a people’s movement won villagers the right to elect their local leadership. Wang wrote:

Tibetan villages too possess all the conditions Wukan does. If one Tibetan village succeeds, Tibet will already have a banner; when ten villages succeed, darkness of the night will be ignited with light of the dawn; with a hundred villages, genuine autonomy will rise from the horizon and embrace Tibet.

Of course, Tibet is not comparable to other Chinese provinces, and Tibetan Buddhism is not Christianity. As Christian Caryl, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, wrote in November 2011, ‘The history of self-immolation as a political tool suggests that it is a highly volatile one. Setting oneself on fire can sometimes ignite a huge political protest, but there’s no guarantee that it will.’

Tibetans should heed such words of caution. In 1998, when Thupten Ngodup became the first Tibetan to self-immolate, it led to much soul-searching among Tibetans. Writing in the Tibetan Review at the time, this writer warned against reactions that unintentionally glorified death:

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.

This certainly holds true in the present situation, too.

However, just as the Vietnamese self-immolations became symbolic of the Vietnamese resistance, the Tibetan self-immolation has become a symbol of the radicalisation of the Tibetan struggle and its movement in a new direction. As it is, in the Tibetan social-media world the self-immolations have been dubbed the ‘Tsampa Revolution’, referring to the roasted barley flour that is a staple of the Tibetan diet. In December 2011 a report emerged that Tapey, the monk introduced at the beginning of this article and whose whereabouts had not been known, was undergoing treatment in a Chinese military hospital. Tapey may be recovering, but the recent self-immolations could just be the tip of the iceberg. What lies underneath, and how it should be dealt with, is a challenge for both the Tibetan people and the Chinese government.

~ Bhuchung K. Tsering is Vice President of the International Campaign for Tibet and a commentator on Tibetan issues.