Three Self-Immolations Amid Crackdown, Debate

Three Tibetan self-immolations have taken place in recent days, according to exile media, amid vigorous discussion of the protests and a continued crackdown by Chinese authorities. From Dharamsala-based Phayul.com:

Tsezung Kyab, 27, torched himself in front of the main prayer hall of the Shitsang Monastery in Luchu region of eastern Tibet at around 1:30 pm (local time). He passed away at his protest site, the same place where his cousin Pema Dorjee, 23, passed away in his self-immolation protest on December 8, 2012.

[…] This is the second self-immolation protest in Tibet in as many days. [On Sunday], Phagmo Dhondup, a Tibetan in his 20’s set himself ablaze near the Jhakhyung Monastery in Palung region of eastern Tibet. His condition and whereabouts are not known.

On Tuesday, news emerged of another case on Monday, in Ngaba. From Phayul:

Sangdag, a monk of the Dhiphu Monastery, set himself ablaze on a main road in Ngaba district at around 10 am (local time).

According to the exile base of Kirti Monastery in Dharamshala, Sangdag’s present condition is unknown.

“Soon after Sangdag carried out his fiery protest, Chinese security personnel arrived at the scene and doused the flames on his body,” Kirti Monastery said in a release today. “He was taken a hospital in Ngaba but shortly after that the Chinese police bundled him away to another place.”

These protests brought the total number of Tibetan self-immolations within China to 107 since the start of 2009. Six other cases have occurred in India and Nepal, while two further incidents in Sichuan province are disputed on the grounds that they may have been accidental. The International Campaign for Tibet publishes perhaps the clearest and most comprehensive list of Tibetan self-immolations, though at time of writing it has not yet been updated to include Sangdag’s.

Another report from Phayul last week illustrated the risks faced by anyone suspected of sharing information about the protests. A 20-year-old Tibetan man was reportedly sentenced to two years in prison after two photographs of self-immolations were found on his phone, along with other images:

“He was apprehended by Chinese security personnel during a routine check near the city mosque,” the release cited a Tibetan source as saying. “Upon checking his mobile phone, the Chinese police found two photos of self-immolation protests, images of Tibetan national flag, and other photos showing Chinese atrocities on Tibetans.”

The release added that he was kept in various prisons for over a week during which he was constantly interrogated. Topden was later sentenced to two years in prison on charges of being a “reactionary, inciting the public, and threatening social stability.” He is currently being kept in a prison in Toelung region.

[…] In December last, four Tibetans were arrested in Rebkong region of eastern Tibet on similar charges of storing “reactionary” materials in the phone after they were found keeping photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in their phones.

This is just the latest in a string of sentences passed on people accused of involvement in the protests. The crackdown is also said to have included confiscation of TV equipment, restrictions on travel, withdrawal of government benefits from families of self-immolators, and beatings and arrests.

Over the longer term, China has attempted to secure its rule over Tibetan areas with economic development. Xinhua’s China View reported the official removal of 130,000 people from poverty in the Tibetan Autonomous Region last year, pointing to long-distance trucking as a key driver of prosperity:

At The New York Times’ Latitude blog, Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore acknowledged that Tibet has seen some material gains. But the settlement of nomadic herders has been a core policy to “raise living standards”, and this, she writes, has left many with government stipends and alcohol in place of traditional livelihoods and communities.

The Chinese government has […] undermined Tibetan nomads’ claim to land by ordering the fencing of private pastures and resettling populations, often forcibly. Since that campaign started in the 1990s — accelerating over the last decade — more than one million Tibetan herders across the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Tibetan-populated regions of western China have been resettled. According to the state-run China Daily, the government spent almost $550 million from 2009 to 2012 on the resettlement of Tibetan nomads in Qinghai.

Herders have traded their livestock and their lifestyle for a small annual stipend. They often relocate to compounds in town — like the colorful ones I saw — where local officials can monitor their activities more easily. “People who live in these houses look at it like a jail,” one young Tibetan told me. “The community is gone.”

What’s left of it is being turned into a social underclass. Many older Tibetan nomads are illiterate, and aside from irregular construction work there is little they can find to support themselves once their stipend runs out. Those who cannot speak Chinese complain of being treated with contempt; they say shopkeepers of ethnic Han origin order them not to touch produce.

NPR’s Talk of the Nation (via CDT) recently hosted a discussion of past and present self-immolations with Columbia University’s Robert Barnett, Oxford University’s Michael Biggs and the International Campaign for Tibet’s Bhuchung Tsering. A blog post translated at High Peaks Pure Earth, on the other hand, offers a glimpse of the ongoing debate on the Tibetan web. Its author, Naktsang Nulo, dismisses the accusation that any but the youngest and most impressionable self-immolators could have been fooled into committing such an act, but implores others not to follow their lead and urges the Dalai Lama to issue a similar appeal.

What I want to state and request again and again from my heart and mind with deep sadness is that no matter what savage and brutal rule you may have to endure, please do not resort to self-immolation. You may come up with any other methods of resistance and struggle, but please do not set yourself on fire. I want to request again that no matter how pure your aims and hopes are, please do not resort to self-immolation.

[…] There are many ways to fight for freedom, to fulfill one’s aspirations and to struggle against the government. At a time when there is a so-called good leadership of the Communist Party, good governance from the administration, good economic development and good livelihood for the people, it seems that an individual, a group of people or a nationality can demand rights from the government, regional authorities or even the Communist Party by submitting appeals and through legal channels. It appears that one may not necessarily have to resort to self-immolation. Perhaps these are just the words of someone like me who does not know much. But what I want to request again is that no matter what savage and brutal rule you may have to endure, please do not set yourself on fire. Whatever methods of struggle and resistance one must adopt, do not resort to self-immolation. No matter how pure and incomparable your hopes and faiths are please do not set yourself on fire. I particularly want to request our root guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, to pray for the sea of suffering in Tibet and kindly make a statement to ask the brave Tibetans not to self-immolate.

In an iSunAffairs Weekly article translated and republished at Phayul, New York-based political science professor Ming Xia examined the question of whether such a call would be effective or desirable. Xia’s primary focus, however, was the lack of support for Tibetans among Han intellectuals in China, which Andrew Jacobs also examined at The New York Times in November. The two groups face shared obstacles, Xia argued, but many Chinese fail to recognize this because of state propaganda or revulsion at the act of self-immolation viewed from a non-Buddhist perspective.

First as intellectuals living in the free world, we must be aware of the fact that the Chinese intellectuals and Tibetans are victims of the same authoritarian rule and that they are both facing a profound identity crisis. It raises a fundamental question for Tibetans, which is whether Tibetans would continue to be Tibetans if there were no Buddhism. And as for the Chinese intellectuals, the question is whether they would still be “intellectuals” if they do not have the right to free and independent thinking and the right to pursue truth. Since the two challenges are closely interlinked, it is therefore incumbent upon the Chinese intellectuals to pay close attention and support the demand of the Tibetan people.

[…] No doubt, resorting to self-immolation is not a good option. Tibetans today, however, do not have the luxury to choose between “good” and “bad”. Tibetans can only chose between “bad” and “worse.” Losing their religious faith is worse than self-immolation for Tibetans. The Chinese Communist regime wantonly insult the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, ban his portrait to be hung in the temples, expel the monks devoted to the Dalai Lama from their monasteries, establish “Temple Management Authority” and “Work Units” in the monasteries, and send millions of copies of the so-called “four leaders” (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao) to the temples. All of this represents a serious threat to the religious freedom of the Tibetan people.

[This post was edited to remove a link to an outdated NPR story.]