Decoding the message from immolations in Tibet

Lobsang Wangyal

Lobsang Wangyal Kiara O'Gorman

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 13 September 2012

The number of self-immolations in Tibet has sadly crossed 50. Tapey, a monk of Kirti monastery in Tibet’s Amdo province, was the first to set fire to himself, in February 2009. There is no sign that the immolations will be ceasing anytime soon.

Nobody would choose to die. Even if they were suicidal, nobody would choose to die in such a painful manner. So why are these Tibetans burning themselves?

It is well known that China is not planning to resolve the Tibetan issue any time soon. What is on their mind now is to maintain political stability ahead of the leadership change in October. Any internal disturbances, such as in Tibet, would be a disaster for the country. Hence any dissent is severely punished.

Tibetans want greater freedom within their own homeland, with at least respect for their basic human rights and the return of the Dalai Lama. All the self-immolators have demanded these things with their dying breaths. Tibetans say that the whole country has become a “hell on earth” and that the Chinese want to commit genocide against Tibetans.

The Chinese government, instead of addressing these issues, blames the Dalai Lama for instigating the immolations. They have even called the immolators “terrorists” — a ridiculous term to use for the Tibetan self-immolators. The act does not cause damage to other people or to property, and calling it terrorism is more than absurd.

The Dalai Lama, on his part, has not directly called for the immolations to stop. He says the best thing for him is to remain neutral. “Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy,” the Dalai Lama said in an interview with The Hindu in July. He has attributed the protests to hardline Chinese policies and to what he calls China’s “cultural genocide” in Tibet.

“I will not give encouragement to these acts, these drastic actions, yet they are understandable, and indeed very, very sad,” he said. “Now the Chinese government, they should investigate what are the real causes. They can easily blame me or some Tibetans but that won’t help solve the problem,” Reuters quoted the Dalai Lama in an interview in August.

Beijing claims that Tibetans inside Tibet are happy under their rule, and further that China liberated Tibetans from a crushing feudal system under the Dalai Lama. China says that the Dalai Lama does not represent the wishes of the majority of Tibetans. They continue to argue that the Dalai Lama and exiled Tibetans planned and instigated the unrest in Tibet, particularly this spate of self-immolations.

The irony is that these ongoing actions put the Chinese propaganda on shaky ground. If Tibetans were happy under Chinese rule, certainly they would reject the Dalai Lama and “his call for protests against China”. The Tibetans have, rather, continued to protest and to set fire to themselves, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.

Recently the atheist and anti-religous Chinese government has embarked on a farcical discussion as to whether the act of self-immolation is within the “scope of Buddhist beliefs”. China claims to worry that such acts would “distort the image of Tibetan Buddhism”.

The debate about why self-immolations are taking place and who they are targeting needs a deeper analysis and perspective.

If the immolators were trying to send a message to the international community, they would more likely escape to India, to burn themselves before the full glare of the world media. Yet in some cases not even a single photograph of the immolator or the event is available, making their motivation completely clear — to tell the Chinese government of their woes.

The plain truth is that the self-immolations send a message directly to the Chinese government that Tibetans are not happy under their rule. The circumstances under which they burn themselves clearly show that they would rather die in their own land then live such miserable lives. And it also shows the Chinese government that even though they control the way Tibetans live, they cannot control the way they die.

China does not want any tension before the leadership change in October when the current leader Hu Jintao steps down and new members are sworn into the Politburo, China’s highest policy-making body. But without paying heed to the Tibetan demands, the situation will remain as critical as now, or even worse. There will only be more Tibetans trying to take their own lives. The Chinese clampdown on dissenters has only forced them to stronger resistance.

For China to be respected and recognised as a global power they must start acting as one. Instead of shooting themselves in the foot as they are doing now, the government ought to take responsibility and work to ease the current urgent situation in Tibet, and for a future that is good for both Tibetans and Chinese.

Shouldering their own responsibility, exile Tibetans have been spreading awareness of the self-immolations and the dire situation in Tibet. All they ask is for China to communicate and negotiate. Moreover they ask the international community to at least raise a voice, to step out of their role as only a mute spectator of the tragedies in Tibet. How many more lives need to be lost before something is done?

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