Hot Spots: Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet

Over a year ago, Tibetan monk Rigzin Phuntsog self-immolated in an act of protest against Chinese rule, marking the beginning of a trend that has left behind the charred bodies of more than 30 Tibetans. As this wave of fiery protest has continued, the Chinese government has launched crackdowns, only serving to heighten tensions and further ignite the movement in Tibetan areas. Though some have made it in by stealth, foreign journalists have been forbidden to enter Tibetan regions, and the media’s steady coverage has largely focused on a debate about the efficacy and ethics of self-immolation in Tibet.

While there is no lack of media commentary, scholarly examination of the subject is sparse. In a special digital issue of their academic journal, the Society for Cultural Anthropology has compiled recent work by preeminent Tibet scholars and cultural figures, in an attempt to find “ways of making sense of self-immolation.” The issue consists of 21 essays divided into six themes, including work by Tibetan historian Tsering Shakya on the changing forms of protest in Tibet; activist-blogger Woeser on CCP propaganda; and High Peaks Pure Earth blogger and translator Dechen Pemba on online documentation in a censored digital environment. An essay on artistic responses to self-immolation features a piece by Crazy Crab, author of the Hexie Farm political cartoon and frequent contributor to CDT. From the introduction to the collection:

Tibet has no history of self-immolation as sacrifice, religious offering, or political protest. Yet, in the last year alone, roughly thirty-five Tibetans have set themselves on fire. The overwhelming majority of self-immolators are inside Tibet, in the People’s Republic of China, and almost exclusively in northwestern Sichuan and southeastern Qinghai provinces (corresponding to the Tibetan regions of northern Kham and southern Amdo). In this special issue of Cultural Anthropology, we collectively ask why. Why are so many Tibetans resorting to the singular act of setting the body on fire? What combination of cultural, historical, political, and/or religious reasons inspire these acts?

 […]As we compiled this issue over the last two months, the frequency of the self-immolations increased. Updating the numbers, however, did not necessarily put us closer to comprehending the acts. How does one write about self-immolation—an act that is simultaneously politically charged, emotionally fraught, visually graphic, individually grounded, collectively felt—and what does one write? How do we intellectually make sense of these self-immolations, and how do we do so while writing in the moment, but writing from the outside?


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