Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet

Palden Choetso, "Self-immolated." November 3, 2011.

Tibet has no history of self-immolation as sacrifice, religious offering, or political protest. Yet, in the last year alone, roughly thirty-five Tibetans have set themselves on fire. The overwhelming majority of self-immolators are inside Tibet, in the People’s Republic of China, and almost exclusively in northwestern Sichuan and southeastern Qinghai provinces (corresponding to the Tibetan regions of northern Kham and southern Amdo). In this special issue of Cultural Anthropology, we collectively ask why. Why are so many Tibetans resorting to the singular act of setting the body on fire? What combination of cultural, historical, political, and/or religious reasons inspire these acts?

Most of the self-immolators have been young Buddhist monks (or former monks), men in their teens and early twenties, but nuns have also immolated, as have both male and female laypeople. One of the self-immolators was a tulku/sprul ku, a respected Buddhist reincarnate lama in his forties. Two earlier Tibetan self-immolations are notable: Thubten Ngodup who in 1998 was the first Tibetan to self-immolate as a form of political protest, and Tapey who self-immolated in February 2009 following massive protests in Tibet the year before.

In the spring of 2008, protests rocked the Tibetan Plateau. These were the largest, most widespread protests in Tibet since 1959 when the Dalai Lama escaped to India. For a brief while, Tibet captured the world’s attention. The protests and accompanying violence received widespread coverage inside and outside of China. The media attention eventually moved on to the devastating earthquake in Sichuan and then the summer Olympics in Beijing. Much of the world might have turned their attention elsewhere, but Tibetans did not. Contributors to this special issue know from fieldwork, travel, and correspondence that things remained tense in many Tibetan areas. If we knew this, though, we did not know that a new form of protest was in the works. We did not anticipate these dozens of self-immolations. No one saw this coming.

As we compiled this issue over the last two months, the frequency of the self-immolations increased. Updating the numbers, however, did not necessarily put us closer to comprehending the acts. How does one write about self-immolation—an act that is simultaneously politically charged, emotionally fraught, visually graphic, individually grounded, collectively felt—and what does one write? How do we intellectually make sense of these self-immolations, and how do we do so while writing in the moment, but writing from the outside?

There are no anthropologists in the self-immolation zone right now. Nor are there any foreign or Chinese journalists. These areas of Tibet are closed. As a result, there is neither on-the-ground, first-hand ethnographic research nor professional media coverage of the self-immolations inside Tibet. If anthropologists usually conduct in-depth, in-person fieldwork followed by reflection and analysis, in this instance we are unable to for political reasons. We simply do not have access to the area. Monasteries and towns linked to self-immolations were locked-down, and military troops rolled into these places, ostensibly to “protect the people” and secure “social order.” Information and images coming out were initially exclusively via Tibetans sending them out to the exile community. The global media could not get to Tibet, and the Chinese media was noticeably silent; Time magazine declared the Tibetan self-immolations the #1 most under-reported story of 2011.

Foreign journalists began to sneak into closed areas to cover the story, but the self-immolations did not make the front page of the New York Times until Jamphel Yeshi set himself on fire on 26 March 2012 in New Delhi. Photographers from Reuters and the Associated Press were on the scene, and shot haunting, powerful images of his self-immolation. They were immediately published around the world. While the self-immolations are now an active media story, as well as scholarly and governmental concern, we still do not know how or when this series of self-immolations will end.

We turn now to the essays, a combination of poignant reflections on the impossibility yet necessity of interpretation, focused analyses of possible ways of making sense of self-immolation, and efforts to speak to broader audiences, to translate ethnographic knowing into meaningful commentary on life and death, on the all-too-real deaths of over thirty Tibetans. Each of these essays was difficult for their author to write, and we gratefully acknowledge their willingness to write about a difficult topic involving political risk.

Following the essays is a large compendium of background material and commentary; there is much good to think with in these links as well. Thank you to Kevin Carrico for invaluable assistance with the background links, translations, and more, and to Ali Kenner for making it all come together. Finally we thank Cultural Anthropology editors Anne Allison and Charles Piot for the invitation to put together this issue, and for creating this new forum for anthropological commentary on events as they take place.


Positionings: On the Politics of Self-Immolation

Transforming the Language of Protest, Tsering Shakya, University of British Columbia

The Political Lives of Dead Bodies, Charlene Makley, Reed College

Interpretations: On Buddhism, Tibet, and Political Protest

Discipline and Resistance on the Tibetan Plateau, Janet Gyatso, Harvard University

Social Suffering and Embodied Political Crisis, Sienna Craig, Dartmouth College

Virtue and the Remaking of Suffering, Tenzin Mingyur Paldron, University of California at Berkeley

Five Armchair Remarks on Tibetan Personhood, Giovanni da Col, Cambridge University

Locations: On Tibet in/and the People's Republic of China

The Geopolitics of Politico-Religious Protest in Eastern Tibet, Andrew Fischer, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), The Hague, Erasmus University Rotterdam

The Place of Hope in Acts of Protest and Offering, Gillian Tan, The University of Melbourne

On “Terrorism” and the Politics of Naming, Emily Yeh, University of Colorado

Tibet Talk—Life, Death, and the State, Ralph Litzinger, Duke University

Disjunctures: On Governmental and Citizen Responses in the PRC

Self-Immolation and Slander, Woeser, Invisible Tibet (Beijing)

On the Questions of Why and to What End, Elliot Sperling, Indiana University

The Information Gauntlet, Losang Gyatso, Voice of America Tibetan Service (Washington DC)

Chinese State Media Representations, Kevin Carrico, Cornell University

Mourning Online, Dechen Pemba, High Peaks Pure Earth (London)

Dilemmas: On the Tibetan Responses in Exile

The Balancing Act of the Exile Tibetan Government, The Tibetan Political Review Editorial Board: Tenzin Dickyi, Nima R.T. Binara, Wangchuk D. Shakabpa, Tenzin Wangyal (USA)

Online Debates Among Tibetans in Exile, Dhondup Tashi Rekjong, Khabdha (USA)

The Work of Art in the Age of Self-Immolation, Leigh Sangster, Maitripa College

Afterwards: On the Possibility of Knowing

The Afterlife of Images (warning: graphic images), Leigh Sangster, Maitripa College

The Blazing Horror of Now (warning: graphic images), Cameron David Warner, Aarhus Universitet

Teaching Tibet in a Time of Precarious Emotion, Carole McGranahan, University of Colorado

**Background links for 'Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet'**

Posts in This Series

Transforming the Language of Protest

The Political Lives of Dead Bodies

Discipline and Resistance on the Tibetan Plateau

Social Suffering and Embodied Political Crisis

Virtue and the Remaking of Suffering

Five Armchair Reflections on Tibetan Personhood

The Geopolitics of Politico-Religious Protest in Eastern Tibet

The Place of Hope in Acts of Protest and Offering

On “Terrorism” and the Politics of Naming

Tibet Talk – on Life, Death, and the State

Self-Immolation and Slander- Woeser

On the Questions of Why and to What End

The Information Gauntlet

Chinese State Media Representations

Mourning Online

The Balancing Act of the Exile Tibetan Government

Online Debates among Tibetans in Exile

The Work of Art in the Age of Self-Immolation

The Afterlife of Images

The Blazing Horror of Now

Teaching Tibet in a Time of Precarious Emotion

Background Links For 'Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet'