Man on Fire
Ninety Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibetan regions since 2009 in protest against Beijing’s policies and in support of the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Five more have self-immolated in India and Nepal. While the Chinese government has prevented journalists from reporting from the region and restricted contact between family members and the outside world, few details are available about the individuals who have given their lives in protest. But National Geographic Magazine has published a lengthy profile of Jamphel Yeshi, a 27-year-old Tibetan refugee living outside Delhi, who set himself on fire during a protest march in Delhi on March 26, 2012. The reporter, Jeffrey Bartholet, interviewed his family and friends to reconstruct his final days and his journey from rural Qinghai to Dharamsala and eventually Delhi. The article also quotes pieces of writing he left behind:
“The moment I was born from my beloved mother’s womb, I was without basic human rights, freedom to think, and was born under foreign domination. Because of this, I had to part ways with my country and come into exile in India. The place that I live now is a small room in Delhi, where I spend my days and nights. When I get up in the morning and look towards the east, tears roll down, uncontrollable … These are not empty words like water vapor.”
Jashi died in Ram Manotar Lohia Hospital, 43 hours after he had been admitted. No one ever survives with 98 percent burns. Even his friends, who had been hopeful early on because his face was familiar, lost hope when his head swelled beyond all recognition.
In the months since his death—and a massive outpouring of support and grief at his memorial service in Dharamsala—a monk who had recently escaped from Jashi’s home area relayed information on how the death was received there. The Voice of America and Radio Free Asia had broadcasted the news of Jashi’s demise, he says, so it was known right away. That night, many neighbors paid their respects to Jashi’s family. The monks of the monastery were forbidden to do so but conducted their own private prayer service the following evening. When Chinese authorities heard about the service, they called the abbot in for questioning.
A neighbor later told the monk that he was with Jashi’s mother a few days after her son’s immolation. She was cooking on a traditional stove, stoked with firewood, and accidentally touched the hot surface, burning her finger. She sobbed and through her tears muttered, “Imagine how much pain my son felt.”