The government of China has condemned Tibetan self-immolation as a form of terrorism. Hua Zi wrote in the Chinese state-owned China Daily,
“Self-immolating youths are manipulated by older religious leaders who advocate the Tibetan independence plot… It is brutal and terrorist behavior to incite young Tibetans, who lack any basic knowledge and background about the real nature of the ‘Tibetan freedom campaign’ and ‘Tibetan independence,’ to commit suicide.”
Underneath the rhetoric and propaganda, the question that begs to be asked is whether Tibet is China’s Afghanistan? Although the comparison may seem asymmetrically ludicrous, it is precisely how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) frames the protest campaign that began in 2008 and intensified in January 2012.
The logic of self-immolation, like suicide bombings, has a two part objective: an external factor characterized by shock, bewilderment, horror and compassion immediately jarring the community. The other, by an internal despair and hopelessness of self-immolators who believe, as in the Asian lore of the phoenix, that they will be born again, as a symbol of hope. This practice, despite being contrary to Buddhist teachings of non-violence, has not stirred the ire of Tibetan leaders or the 180 Tibet non-government organizations under the International Tibet Network, from publicly criticizing this form of protest. Students for a Free Tibet’s Executive Director and leading Tibet activist, Tenzin Dorjee, proclaimed that,
Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in protest were exemplary community members and even widely respected Tibetan leaders who displayed courage and integrity in their final acts of defiance— qualities of character far beyond the reach of the Chinese bureaucrats and officials who attempt to demonize them from Beijing.
This wide acceptance of self-immolation among Tibetans can be understood by examining China’s oppressive regime. Tibet has been occupied by China for sixty years, just 15 years shy of Israel’s occupation of the territory commonly referred to as Palestine, making Tibet one of the longest occupations in modern history. As a result, Tibetans are frequently harassed in the streets, workplace and homes by Chinese security forces. The Chinese government forbids public assembly, protest and public slogans, and resort to using soldiers to assault and shoot at demonstrators. Tibetans found possessing images of the Dalai Lama are imprisoned, while possessing photos of the exiled Tibetan government will likely lead to abduction, torture and disappearing, never to be seen again. Under these conditions, Tibetans have found no other voice or outlet to demonstrate their political discontent other than sacrificially incinerating themselves in public.
Self- immolation has been a successful tactic since first pioneered in Vietnam on June 10th, 1963. Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk self-immolated in the middle of a bustling Saigon intersection, in protest of the Catholic dominated Ngo Dinh Diem government. The incident even reached a confounded President Kennedy, who had photos of the suicide spread across the Oval Office desk. Later that spring, the CIA deposed Diem’s dictatorship, even though they had initially sponsored it.
However, Saigon is not Tibet. They were different circumstances, different times and South Vietnam was an internal struggle between Vietnamese factions. Tibetans contend against a mandarin elite 3,000 km away, state media controls Chinese perception of Tibet, and Beijing has more political leverage over Washington than Saigon ever did. Furthermore, Beijing elites’ are disciplined with scripted communiqués unlike Madame Nhu’s flippant, though wrongly attributed infamous quotation of the Mariette Antoinette-like, remark, “Let them burn… We shall clap our hands.”
Consequently, demonstrators are not getting their message across. Tibet is technologically primitive, poor, rural and undereducated. No journalists are permitted inside Tibet and Tibetans are denied access to outside information. This new generation of youths has never met, spoken to or heard the Dalai Lama speak. They have been ostracized from their exiled government representatives, for whom they were never able to vote, and have no way of communication with the religious leaders – who claim not to be leading the self-immolation movement.
And above all else, it is the world media and international community that failed the people of Tibet. By the time this report is published, there will have been 95 self-immolators according to the International Campaign for Tibet. Eight of whom were children, and the number continues to rise. The media failed to adequately cover this tragic story in 2012. It is the same story the global community failed to pay attention to during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and that culminated into today’s crisis, in which children, monks and nuns douse themselves in gasoline and publicly set themselves on fire. Regardless of one’s politics, more effort this year needs to be made to bring attention to this issue.
– Trent Lee
Featured photo: SFT HQ, Wylio
photo 1: SFTHQ, Creative Commons, Flickr)