After repeated occurrences of self-immolation in Tibetan populated areas – the most recent by two women and an 18-year-old man, all laypersons – an article in The Economist asks if the practice is an effective form of protest against Chinese policies:
A famous story tells how, in a previous life, the Buddha took pity on a starving tigress, who might otherwise have had to eat her newborn cubs. He sacrificed himself instead. The tale is often recalled by Tibetans in exile in Dharamsala in northern India as they lament a seemingly endless cycle of self-immolations in their homeland. In the past year at least 26 Tibetans, mostly young Buddhist monks, have set fire to themselves. As they burned, usually to death, they shouted slogans against Chinese rule and for the return of the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader, who has been based in Dharamsala since 1959. The moral of the tiger parable is that, though Buddhism abhors even self-inflicted violence, it can be justified if the sacrifice is for the greater good. The agonising question, however, is whether these brave acts do anybody any good at all.
Tibetan blogger Woeser, under house arrest in Beijing since March 1, has posted an open letter to Tibetans on her blog (zh). In the letter, co-authored by the exiled Arjia Rinpoche, Woeser makes her opinion clear: its time for the 3-year long string of self-immolations to stop. Radio Free Asia reports:
“Expressed through these self-immolations is the will of Tibetans,” the letter said, referring to the 26 self-immolations since February 2009 in protest against Beijing’s rule in Tibetan-populated areas and calling for the return of Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
Woeser, who has written critically of the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet, said that the self-immolations by mostly young Tibetans “make one feel grief-stricken,” and that ending the trend “deserves to be treated as a matter of utmost urgency.”
“Twenty-six cases make it clear what Tibetans have wanted to articulate,” said the joint letter by Woeser and a senior Tibetan religious figure, Arjia Rinpoche, now living in exile in the United States, and Tibet’s Amdo-based poet Gade Tsering.
“Yet, articulation of one’s will cannot be an ultimate goal. The will has to be put into practice, transforming into reality,” they said in the letter titled “Appeal to Tibetans To Cease Self-Immolation: Cherish Your Life in a Time of Oppression.”
“Staying alive allows us to gather the strength as drops of water to form a great ocean,” it said. “It depends on thousands and more living Tibetans to pass on our nation’s spirit and blood!”
The letter also asks “monks, the elderly, intellectuals, officials, and the masses” to help prevent more immolations.
China blames supporters of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for encouraging the self-immolations.
The Dalai Lama has praised the courage of those who engage in self-immolation and has attributed the protests to what he calls China’s “cultural genocide” in Tibet. He also says he does not encourage the protests, noting that they could invite an even harsher crackdown.
Voice of America reports on how the situation in Tibet has been “downplayed” in press conferences surrounding the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress.
As a wave of self-immolations continues in Tibetan areas of China, Chinese authorities not only are tightening security, but also are stepping up efforts to discredit those who have set themselves on fire to protest China’s policies in the region.
[…]On Wednesday, Wu Zegang, an ethnic-Tibetan and head of Aba prefecture – where most of the recent self-immolations have taken place – blamed separatists for the unrest.
Wu said that most of the people who are carrying out acts of self-immolation shout out separatist slogans such as “Independence for Tibet” or aim to divide China.
He also said that many of those who have committed suicide have criminal records and are outcasts.
More on Beijing’s attempts to “downplay” the situation from the LA Times:
In an effort to instill Chinese values, authorities have in recent years stepped up what they call “patriotic education” in schools and monasteries, forcing Tibetans to renounce the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, and to study communist theory. Such efforts have backfired.
“There is an escalation of control and restrictions in daily life, and that burst out in frustration,” said Lobsang Jinpa, a 29-year-old former monk from Nyitso Monastery in Dawu, Sichuan province, which, like Gansu and Qinghai, has a large Tibetan population. He knew two people who died by self-immolation. He left China last year and now lives in Dharamsala, India.
The government has tried to downplay such motivations. China’s New China News Agency reported Wednesday that Tsering Kyi [a recently deceased self-immolator] had been suffering from fainting spells after hitting her head on a radiator while playing in a classroom. “The medical treatment held up her studies and her school scores began to decline, which put a lot of pressure on her and made her lose courage in life,” the agency reported.
Also see a recent High Peaks Pure Earth translation of a Woeser blogpost from last month, in which she profiles a monk named Tapey, possibly the first Tibetan to self-immolate in protest.