Flames Of Protest: The History Of Self-Immolation

In the week since news emerged of the 100th Tibetan self-immolation within China’s borders since 2009, four more cases have been reported. Most recently, according to Dharamsala-based Phayul.com, a pair of teenaged former schoolmates died from their burns after a protest on Tuesday:

Two Tibetan teenagers set themselves on fire in Kyangtsa region of Zoege, eastern Tibet on February 19, protesting China’s continued occupation and repressive policies in Tibet.

Rinchen, 17 and Sonam Dhargey, 18 have succumbed to their burns.

[… Kirti Monastery said in a release that] “The families of the two teenagers are in possession of their bodies and are hoping to carry out their final rites without any interference from the Chinese authorities.”

The 102nd self-immolation is said to have occurred on Sunday. From Phayul.com:

Namlha Tsering, 49, carried out his fiery protest at around 5:40 pm (local time) in Sangchu region of Labrang. His current condition is not known although sources say chances of his survival are minimal.

Photos received by Phayul show Namlha Tsering sitting cross-legged in the middle of a street even as high flames are rising from his body. In another photo he is seen fallen on his back with fire still leaping from his body.

[…] Chinese security personnel arrived at the scene of the protest, doused the flames and bundled him away.

The 101st reportedly took place on the same symbolic date on which the hundredth was revealed after a 10-day delay. Another Tibetan also set fire to himself that day in Kathmandu, Nepal, and later died. From Phayul.com:

A Tibetan father of three set himself on fire in Amchok region of eastern Tibet on February 13, a day observed by Tibetans as the centenary celebrations of His Holiness the 13th Dalai Lama’s Proclamation of Tibetan Independence.

Drugpa Khar, 26, set himself on fire in Amchok town in Sangchu region of Kanlho at around 1 pm (local time). He reportedly succumbed to his injuries.

[…] According to exile sources, Drugpa Khar is survived by his parents Tamding Tsering and Tamding Tso. His youngest child is one year old and the eldest is aged six.

At least six other self-immolations have taken place beside these 104, including two in Nepal and four in India. Another two possible cases within China’s borders are disputed on the grounds that they may have been accidental. Joshua Eaton has examined these and other reasons for discrepancies.

On NPR’s Talk of the Nation on Wednesday, Oxford University’s Michael Biggs, Columbia University’s Robert Barnett and the International Campaign for Tibet’s Bhuchung Tsering discussed the protests with host Neal Conan. Their conversation covers the history and potency of self-immolation protests globally, and their causes and effects within Tibet. Asked whether suicide bombings might replace suicide protests, Biggs argued that these are fundamentally different phenomena rather than points on the same spectrum. Bhuchung Tsering, though, suggested that goading Tibetans into just such an escalation may be one of the Chinese authorities’ aims, as it could be used to justify an even harsher crackdown. Perhaps the key question, however, is whether the protests might be having more of an effect than meets the eye.

CONAN: Let me turn back to Robert Barnet. Bhuchung Tsering just said that he thinks behind the scenes the Chinese government is debating this issue. Is there any evidence of that?

BARNETT: Well, I do have some evidence of that, actually. (Unintelligible) internal, you know, but we have sources, and they have been – you know, people have been sent to tell us about this. And I think it’s probably true. I think there’s been a major change in the Chinese view that whether these things are really caused by the Dalai Lama and the exiles, I think they now recognize they are caused by these mishandled, grossly mishandled religious policies and a whole raft of other policies over many years.

But the problem is not whether that change has happened. I think Bhuchung’s right. But I think the problem is whether the new leadership in China is able to push forward any change. It faces a very resistant bureaucracy. It faces a whole industry of people in security forces, in various offices, in local governments, whose whole careers depend on having a security threat, that they’re the hard men who are sent there to control it, and they’re going to go on pushing very hard for a tough policy.

[… O]ne of the questions is we don’t really know whether the new leadership is running these things yet. A lot of decisions are made at the local level. Some decisions are made by incumbents who are still there from the previous leadership. It doesn’t, as you say, fully change until March. We don’t yet know when this leadership can step forward and stamp its new ideas on the situation. Maybe it doesn’t have any new ideas. Maybe it’s going to be very careful. They can’t bring them in for another couple of years. I think all the bets are off on this. China is a black box in terms of leadership thinking.

At The Wall Street Journal, Brian Spegele and Deborah Kan also discussed the protests and the resulting crackdown: