The Tibetan self-immolations are one of the most intensely personal and complex acts of protest the world is witnessing today, and their growing frequency seems to be reaching a tipping point. In describing the Arab self-immolations, The New York Times said “self-immolation, symbolic of systemic frustration and helplessness, has become increasingly common across the region.” This is an equally, if not more apt description for what is going on in Tibet. TIME magazine identified the Tibetan protests as the number one “underreported story” for 2011.
Why were—and are—the Tibetan self-immolations underreported? There are several reasons, but one is that the Chinese government allows no media access to Tibet. In February, the Foreign Press Club of China stated: “The Chinese authorities have set up a massive security cordon in an attempt to prevent journalists from entering Tibetan areas in Western Sichuan Province where major unrest - including killings and self-immolations - has been reported.” Yet, several intrepid reporters have recently (and illegally) traveled to the region; their reporting has been invaluable. As a result of this media ban, as well as other barriers to global reporting on Tibet, every single self-immolation story was broken by individuals and groups outside the PRC, and exile Tibetan media, such as the Voice of America Tibetan service, to whom Tibetan sources inside Tibet risk their security to send invaluable information, photographs, and videos. Right now, the frontline reporters of the self-immolations are ordinary Tibetans living in Tibetan areas of the PRC.
The first Tibetan self-immolation occurred in 1998, when a retired Tibetan veteran set himself ablaze in New Delhi to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. The act was unprecedented in the Tibetan movement’s history and shocked the Tibetan world. But the story went largely unnoticed in the world press, and there was no response from Beijing. The Los Angeles Times reported “as if to underscore its defiance, the Chinese government has failed to mention the hunger strikes or suicide in state-run television or newspaper.”
Thirty-three confirmed Tibetan self-immolations have taken place since 2009. The world media is taking them more seriously and academics and government officials are discussing them, causing China to produce a series of shifting narratives to explain them, each one pointing to causes other than local political conditions and China’s own policies in Tibet.
China’s contention that the self-immolators are misguided individuals or that they had mundane personal reasons for burning themselves are betrayed by the level of prejudice and ferocity shown by its security forces on the ground. Sources have told the VOA Tibetan service that Tapey, the young monk who in 2009 was the first to self-immolate inside Tibet, was shot multiple times even as he was engulfed in flames. And in several of the other cases, including the ones on 14 January, 13 February, and 16 March 2012, security forces used spiked and/or regular batons to beat the protestors violently even as they were burning.
Chinese authorities also cite ‘outside forces’ and the Dalai Lama as ‘instigators’ of the immolations, and have painted the self-immolations as acts of terrorism stemming from a misunderstanding of religion, and carried out by easily manipulated youths. These explanations seem designed to resonate with the West’s impression of Islamic suicide bombers, yet conflict factually with all accounts from sources close to the immolations.
Eventually, Chinese state media shifted to personalized explanations for the self-immolations. On the 6 January 2012 case of two men who self-immolated together, Xinhua said, “[the two] men had been involved in a number of thefts,” implying that remorse and guilt had driven them to suicide. In the case of the self-immolation of the forty-two year old reincarnation Lama Sopa on 8 January 2012, Xinhua claimed he had come between a married couple and committed self-immolation due to disgrace and shame. Eyewitnesses who knew these individuals well thoroughly refuted these “explanations.”
Most recently Chinese state media has reverted to blaming the Dalai Lama for the self-immolations, an accusation some say may exacerbate the underlying causes for them, and also stands in contradiction to China’s perennial claim that only a few handful of Tibetans follow the Dalai Lama. Philip Wen of the Sydney Morning Herald, who was able to sneak into the region, was told by a local Tibetan, “If it was the Dalai Lama behind it, we'd all be burning ourselves.''
Finally on 7 March, perhaps in an effort to both stop the self immolators from becoming martyrs and also to paint the Dalai Lama’s influence over Tibetans as being limited to a few ‘outcasts.’ Wu Zegang, head of Aba, the county where the largest number of self-immolations have taken place, made a new and sweeping statement on which The Guardian reported, “Chinese officials have sought to discredit Tibetans who set themselves on fire in protest at China's rule over their region, calling them outcasts, criminals and mentally ill people manipulated by the exiled Dalai Lama.”
Outside of China, there has been a deepening and evolving understanding of the self-immolations. Initially both the press and expert analysts tried to find their logic in religious and cultural traditions instead of looking at the self-immolations themselves. However, after it became apparent that there is no Tibetan equivalent to the twenty virgins in heaven, the immolations were then seen by some as possible acts of individual failure and desperation, or stemming from simple rage against repression. Both of these explanations have proven unsatisfactory and do not conform to the testament left behind by Lama Sopa, nor to statements made by nineteen year old female student, Tsering Kyi. Days before her self-immolation, Tsering Kyi reportedly told friends that “we need to do something for Tibet.” In his audio testament, Lama Sopa states clearly that he is acting "not for personal glory but for Tibet and the happiness of Tibetans."
As journalists and experts gain greater insights into the self-immolations, they are starting to appreciate the magnitude and complexity of what they represent. On 13 February 2012, Jonathan Watts of The Guardian, who reached Ngaba (Ch. Aba) by dodging checkpoints, reported a climate of fear and intimidation rising from a security lockdown in the area and said, “Without some sort of political initiative, it’s hard to see the situation improving any time soon.”
A ‘political initiative’ that would end oppression, and increase religious and cultural freedoms, is what each of the self-immolators demanded, and what Tibetans have been praying for since 1959. That is the reason why Tibetans instinctively understood what Ngodup, the first to self-immolate in 1998, was doing when he knelt down while engulfed in orange fire and slowly put his hands together to pray. While there are many Tibetans who may disagree with the drastic measure of the self-immolations, there are few who are not burning with the immolators in spirit.
30 March 2012
Losang Gyatso, Service Chief, Voice of America Tibetan Service*
(*The article does not necessarily reflect the views of VOA or the United States Government.)