Staff writer | TCHRD
MCLEOD GANJ, India, 22 October 2012
“Since China is uninterested in the well-being of the Tibetan people, we are sharpening our nonviolent movement. We are declaring the reality of Tibet by burning our own bodies to call for freedom of Tibet … We will win the battle through truth, by shooting the arrows of our lives, by using the bow of our mind.’
Though the hungry wolves in witching pandas’ skin
Devour our people and leave our land a wasteland
Though we fall into the esurient embrace of a predatory enemy
There will be no white flags upon our doors.
— “No White Flags”, Shakapba
These defiant and moving words of Gudrup (a Tibetan poet and writer who self-immolated this month), and Tibetan scholar and historian Shakabpa, express the pain and courageous resistance of those who seek justice and freedom in Tibet. These are not the words of desperate suicide victims, but of human beings pushed to the limit in their battle for truth combined with a defiant refusal to surrender to violence, oppression and injustice. As Costica Bradatan writes in The Political Psychology of Self-Immolations: “Self-immolation has little to do with suicide … self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest.” To try and fathom the Tibetan self-immolations is to mentally enter into inhospitable and dangerous terrain: The Chinese darkness covering Tibet. Conceptually doing justice to the mental experience of nausea, terror, reverence, and fascination when imagining the circumstances that create such radical yet brave acts of resistance is difficult; one is rendered speechless.
Five Tibetan men burn themselves alive in the space of three weeks
Fifty-seven Tibetans have burned themselves alive in Tibet since February 2009, out which 47 have died. All those who self-immolated have shouted slogans demanding freedom for Tibetans and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet. In less than three weeks alone, there have been four such deadly protests. Over the past two years, these acts of non-violent resistance in Tibet have grown not only in numbers, but also in the breadth of participants and places, widening the demographic make-up of the self-immolators in all major Tibetan regions. The Tibetan self-immolators have a range of social backgrounds and ages, contrary to the mainstream media’s assertions that the protesters are predominantly monks and nuns, or are young and thus more politicised (with a certain dismissiveness implied by that).
A Father of Two
According to media reports, on 20 October, Lhamo Kyab, 27, a father of two young daughters, set himself on fire near Bora Monastery in Sangchu (Chinese: Xiahe) county, Kanlho (Gannan) Prefecture, Gansu province. Eyewitness reports state that he succumbed to his burn injuries at the site of his protest.
Phayul.com reported an eyewitness as stating that: “Engulfed in flames, Lhamo Kyab raised slogans calling for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet, and then fell to the ground after walking a few steps,” and that “Following the self-immolation, a minor scuffle broke out at the site of the protest between Chinese security personnel and local Tibetans, who succeeded in carrying Lhamo Kyab’s charred body inside the Monastery’s main prayer hall.”
A Grandfather of a high Tibetan lama
On 13 October, these protests reached a new level as the grandfather of a prominent reincarnate spiritual leader in Tibet burned himself to death to defy the Chinese government. Tamdin Dorjee, a Tibetan from the Tsoe region in Kanlho “Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture”, Gansu Province, was around 50 years old, father of three and grandfather of the 10-year-old boy recognised as the 7th Gungthang Rinpoche. Not only a respected elder relative of a high lama, he would also be considered part of the Tibetan elite. He reportedly sacrificed himself near the Manithogang stupa at the Tsoe Gaden Choeling Monastery calling for “freedom in Tibet”, “the long life of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his return to Tibet”. Dolkar Tso, 26, a mother of two, sacrificed her life at the very same spot on 7 August 2012.
Monks and lay people in the area were reported to have offered their respect and prayers to his family. Tsoe Gaden Choeling Monastery is currently under heavy lockdown by armed Chinese forces. Sources say Tibetans gathered in large numbers to pray for Dorjee despite a heavy military buildup in the area following his self-immolation.
A Father of Two
On 6 October, Sangay Gyatso, another 27-year-old father of two, burned himself alive as a protest against Chinese rule in Tsoe (Chinese: Hezuo) city, Gansu Province. According to sources, this act of resistance was carried out near a Buddhist stupa at Dokar Monastery, demonstrating yet again the non-violent, sacred motivations behind these Tibetan “body-offerings”. Gyatso burned to death. Chinese security forces were then reportedly rushed to the area and Dokar Monastery to suppress any further protest.
On 4 October, the Tibetan writer Gudrup, 43, staged a self-immolation protest against Chinese rule in Nagchu (Chinese: Naqu) County town in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). Witnesses say that he shouted slogans calling for Tibetan freedom before setting himself on fire at a local marketplace,
Radio Free Asia reported. According to Voice of America, witnesses said Gudrup was badly burned when he was brought to a hospital. A doctor later told them Gudrup had died, but the authorities so far have refused to release his body to his family.
Gudrup is a native of Diru (Chinese: Biru) in Nagchu Prefecture, TAR, and was a writer who read extensively on Tibet’s history. He studied at Sherab Gatsel Lobling School in Dharamshala in India before returning to his homeland in 2005 upon completion of his studies. He has been described as a prolific writer who goes by the pen name “Youth of Snow Realm”. According to an article by Woeser, a prominent Beijing-based Tibetan writer and activist, Gudrup wrote poetry and articles on his blog about the Tibetan protests and struggle, reportedly leaving this powerful message on 14 March 2012:
Sound of National Drum Beaten by Lives
The people of the Land of Snow share a common goal of bringing His Holiness the Dalai Lama back to an independent Tibet. But when His Holiness opted for autonomy for Tibet through nonviolent struggle, the six million Tibetans accepted his wishes. However, the Chinese government has not supported his proposal. Moreover, Tibetans who are concerned about the welfare of the people are subjected to arbitrary arrests and beatings. Tibetans who refuse to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama or accept China’s rule on Tibet are secretly killed or made to disappear.
Since China is uninterested in the well-being of the Tibetan people, we are sharpening our nonviolent movement. We are declaring the reality of Tibet by burning our own bodies to call for freedom of Tibet. Higher beings, Please see Tibet. Mother earth, Extend compassion to Tibet. Just world, Uphold the truth. The pure land of snow is now tainted with red blood, where military crackdowns are ceaseless. We as sons and daughters of the Land of Snow will win the battle. We will win the battle through truth, by shooting the arrows of our lives, by using the bow of our mind. Dear brothers and sisters of the Land of Snow, please unite together and prioritize the well-being of all Tibetans by putting aside personal issues. We can only enjoy equality and freedom then.
Despite censorship, Chinese social media is difficult to control. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, where censorship is the norm, online users subverted this by posting coded messages. A post by the head of a Buddhist charity organization in Tibet featuring wording very similar to Gudrup’s final post quickly went viral. Some of the 5,000 users who chose to comment praised the wisdom of the post, while other Weibo users connected the words to those associated with Gudrup’s death.
On 29 September, Yungdrung, 27, a layman, set himself on fire in Zatoe (Chinese: Zaduo) in Jyekundo (Chinese: Yushu) “Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture”, Qinghai Province. According to sources, Yungdrung was dressed in traditional Tibetan clothes and set fire to himself in front of a row of shops in the town, calling for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Gyalwang Karmapa to Tibet, and describing Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay as the political leader of Tibet. He also raised slogans asking the Chinese government to stop the exploitation of Tibet’s mineral resources, and called for Tibetan freedom. Chinese security personnel immediately took him away to an unknown location. He has reportedly died, but the Chinese authorities have not released his body to his family.
Yungdrung is a native of Karma Yultso village in Karma Township, Chamdo (Chinese: Changdu), TAR, and had been staying at Zatoe town.
Such a sustained level of self-immolation protests against a regime’s injustice is historically unprecedented. Not only demonstrating the courageous spirit of Tibetan resistance, but also the extent to which the Chinese military lockdown of Tibet has pushed the Tibetan people into taking such drastic actions. This month, the Dalai Lama also spoke of the “courage and strength of the Tibetan people” in a talk to local Tibetans in Virginia, USA:
I can perhaps say that there has not been a more urgent and a worst period for us since the early history of the Tibetan people. Today, the existence of the Tibetan people and its culture is not without a danger. But if we take a look back over the past 60 years, it is clear that there is an unwavering courage and strength in the Tibetan people. Such has not withered despite living under a great hardship. Although there is a continuous attempt to diminish it through force and other means, the courage of the Tibetan people has not been lost. That is because we have truth on our side.
Media reporting: a distorted, dehumanising effect
These unimaginable acts of sacrifice and bravery do not demonstrate, as many would have us believe, that Tibetans are “helpless”, “desperate”, “non-Buddhist”, or “suicide victims”. Even the oft-used phrase “self-immolation” has to some extent de-humanised the protests giving them a clinical, technical tone, instead of the more realistic phrase “burning oneself alive”. Reporting these stories simply in terms of cold “objective facts” and “statistics” only further sanitises and diminishes the human struggle and injustice behind such actions.
Headlines such as “Tibetans in Turmoil” reveal how the Chinese government and media propaganda efforts have been relatively successful in ensuring that the actions of the Tibetans themselves (the oppressed) have been put under the international media’s magnifying glass, as opposed to focusing on the root of the problem: China’s inhumane and repressive policies in Tibet, and the insane and unbending oppression of the Tibetan people and wanton destruction of their culture, language, religion, and physical environment.
Debates as to whether the Tibetan protests are Buddhist or non-violent are a distraction from the real issue and feed the Chinese propaganda. In direct contradiction to the Chinese propaganda that the immolations are “terrorist acts” and “barbaric”, organised by a “Dalai Lama splittist clique”, Amnesty International recently reported [PDF] that there have been 41 cases of Chinese self-immolation against forced evictions in China from 2009 to 2011. These are different from Tibetan cases, but it is striking that the form of protest is the same.
It is noteworthy that these recent burning sacrifices took place despite the fact that, on 28 September, a special meeting in Dharamshala, India, of more than 400 exile Tibetans from 26 countries, issued a fervent appeal urging Tibetans not to undertake such protests.
Chinese “lunacy”, paranoia and its brutal policy of prevention
Almost all Tibetan regions under Chinese rule have been the site of protests and self-immolations since 2008, when an uprising spread across Tibet from Lhasa. Local and central Chinese authorities have responded to each incidence with further security clampdowns and detentions, and accused the protesters with a wide range of charges: terrorists, separatists, womanizers, mentally ill, and people with domestic problems. However, such draconian and brutal measures have failed to stop these and other protests in Tibet. It is not the Tibetan protesters who are displaying symptoms of being mentally ill but those who dictate, influence and carry out China’s catastrophic policy of annihilating a people and a culture.
Such mental instability on the part of the Chinese authorities can be seen in February 2012, in an open letter to the Chinese leadership, by Luo Feng, a Tibetan cadre who writes about the two “lunatics” (Tibetan: སྨྱོ་ཧམ་དང་ཧོལ་རྒྱུགས་ཆེ་པའི་དཔོན་རིགས [Wylie: smyo ham dang hol rgyugs che pai dpon rigs]) in charge of stability in Ngaba County. The letter was written in the wake of a major promotion of hardliner Shi Jun from regional Party Secretary to the Director-General of Public Security for Sichuan province. The letter appeared on website forums and blogs, and was circulated widely. It also appeared in Tibetan on Tibetan blogs but was swiftly removed:
His way of appointing officials has made people of all walks of life in Ngaba feel unimaginably strange and is impervious to reason. The comments among the people go as follows: The work of maintaining stability in Ngaba County was in charge by two “lunatics,” and the more they are taking control, the crazier the situation is becoming. One is the deputy governor of Ngaba Prefecture Yan Chunfeng, who was recruited as a city-planning specialist by Ngaba Prefecture after May 12, but he does not know anything about the ethnic minority regions, has no knowledge about the policies for religion or religious problems, has no emotional attachment toward people in Tibetan areas, and is even more ignorant about Tibetan language. Thus, having him in charge of maintaining stability is simply a complete mistake, and he has made an ass of himself. The more he talks, the sillier he sounds, and the more work he does, the more chaotic the situation is. The other “lunatic” is Liu Feng, who is the head of the Administration Department of Kirti Monastery. Like Chunfeng, he is also like a blank paper and knows nothing. He only knows how to scheme, but does not know how to pacify.
The letter also reveals the extent of Chinese militarisation of the region:
There is a saying among the people: the practice of one guard every three paces and a sentry post every five paces is just like Iraq, the practice of more members of the working team than the number of monks is like the Cultural Revolution, and the practice of having the common people live under the gun is like Libya.
China’s inability to find a solution to the self-immolations was also described in the 2012 US Congressional Executive Committee on China’s annual report. It states: “The Party and government have not indicated any willingness to consider Tibetan grievances in a constructive manner and to hold themselves accountable for Tibetan rejection of Chinese policies, and handled the crisis as a threat to state security and social stability instead of as a policy failure.”
Murder, harassment and imprisonment are some of the weapons used in China’s current arsenal of prevention. Only last week, the Chinese courts sentenced four Tibetans to prison, for allegedly aiding a self-immolation protest and leaking news of protests to outside contacts.
Although TCHRD is unable to confirm, on 23 August, media sources reported that Chinese police murdered Dorjee Rabten, 57, after first harassing him and his brother and placing him under severe restrictions. Rabten had allegedly decided to self-immolate against China’s practice of denouncing the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, the lack of freedom in Tibet, and the Chinese government’s policies of restricting academic opportunities to Tibetan youths.
The Chinese authorities have also recently prosecuted scores of Tibetans on charges of fomenting opposition against the Chinese government. In August, a 17-year-old girl was given a three-year sentence for distributing leaflets calling for religious freedom and for the return of the Dalai Lama. In June, a prominent monk, Yonten Gyatso, was sentenced to seven years for sending out photographs and information about the self-immolation of a Buddhist nun.
Chinese citizens themselves are also kept in the dark with the Chinese media not reporting the crackdowns on Tibetans and their burning sacrifices.
Tibetan protests are not a failure for Tibetans
TCHRD rejects the predominant Chinese, mainstream, and academic narratives, which perpetuate speculative untruths that Tibetan self-immolations are suicidal, violent, and non-Buddhist. We also reject the contention that such protests are a failure and without impact. The failure fundamentally lies with Chinese hardline policies in Tibet and that is where the emphasis should focus in any discussion. Gyaltsen, the cousin of self-immolator Lobsang Jamyang, recently wrote about his frustration at such biased messages:
It seems that our protests and specially the news of self-immolations fell on deaf ears, but it is not true that Tibetan protests have gone unheard or unnoticed … right after the self-immolation of my cousin, people of all ages came to my village and helped the victim in such a manner that everyone seemed of belonging to our “family”. All the conflicts, which once divided the people blurred away. Even if there was hatred and separation among the Tibetans earlier, everyone acted and felt like brothers and sisters, living and working together … this story took place in an impoverished village but when we earth out every such story together, it is crystal clear that all those protests specially the self-immolations triggered a new spark of unity, patriotism and nationalism among Tibetans and woke up many Tibetans from their deep slumbers.
Gyaltsen’s account of Tibetan unity and solidarity is also supported by a defiant video message of resistance smuggled out of occupied Tibet and received by the Voice of Tibet on 11 October. The message (in Tibetan) talks about posters that were distributed by Tibetans in Chentsa (Chinese: Jiancha) County in Malho (Chinese: Huangnan) “Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture”, Qinghai Province, urging Tibetans not to take part in the local archery festival despite Chinese officials paying some local Tibetans to do so. The speaker quotes a Tibetan proverb for those who are undecided: “An excellent horse has its own way of running. A man should search his own independent state of mind.”
This Tibetan defiance and refusal to be silenced, despite the intense pressure placed upon them not to do so by the Chinese authorities, is the reason why Sikyong Dr Lobsang Sangay is correct when he recently stated that the Tibetan spirit is stronger than the Chinese authorities. As Bradatan eloquently concludes:
In the long run, Tibetans’ despair may be China’s worst nightmare. What a routinisation of self-immolation as political protest can lead to the Chinese authorities may not be even able to comprehend. And, yet, they should not be surprised; maybe it is time they start re-reading the little red book: “Where there is oppression, there is resistance.” In his grave, Mao Zedong is dreaming in Tibetan.
We would go further than that. If Mao were sincere in his political statements, he would not just be dreaming in his grave, he would be turning in his grave. So, rather than quoting Mao, we think it more suitable to quote the great Indian freedom fighter Gandhi who said:
Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.
These protests clearly display the indomitable will of Tibetans. This inner strength combined with the intractability of the Chinese authorities will inevitably lead to something more explosive. For the sake of all, we hope the Chinese government regain control of their sanity and give the Tibetan people the freedom and self-determination they are entitled to.