Revisiting Tibetan Self-immolations

Two recent articles refocus attention on Tibetans who have self-immolated to express protest against Beijing’s policies in Tibet. A total of at least 155 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009; most of them have died. After a surge of cases in 2012, there have only been sporadic reports in recent years, with the most recent reported incident in Sichuan in December 2018. For Outside Magazine, Tracy Ross travels to India with anthropologist Carole McGranahan to interview family members of self-immolators and explore how the act has impacted the Tibetan community and global awareness of Tibet’s situation. She writes:

You can’t unsee a person so committed to a cause that they’ll douse themselves with gasoline or kerosene, go to a public place, light a match, and burst into flames. But the images lack context and fail to give you the full story about the reasoning behind the act, the resolve to do it, or the drama of premeditation. All you see is flesh burning, mouths screaming, bodies falling, and, at times, the person clutching a Tibetan flag or a picture of the Dalai Lama.

It’s also unclear what these sacrificial gestures accomplish. Even when videos are smuggled out of Tibet—where the vast majority of self-immolations have happened—they rarely cause a hiccup in the international news cycle. Almost all of the videos from inside Tibet come from citizen journalists. If they make it out of the country, they’re sent to Dharamsala, where activists do their best to verify credibility. But the videos can be downplayed or discounted, because news organizations want the security of using their own journalists and photographers. The situation results in limited information reaching a generalized audience and the feeling, at least for me, that a sort of scrim lies between the events and their dissemination, making it hard to know what’s true or false. This may explain why such a large number of people who I know to be in tune with world events had never heard of self-immolation before I brought it up.

[…] “[Ngawang] can’t survive, though, because almost everything is burnt,” Phelgye said. “And then they put so many things in his body—to get information—names, who guided him.” Ngawang refused to talk, and he died days later. Phelgye said the Tibetan Youth Congress held a puja for him at the temple in Dharamsala and that a spokesman for the Dalai Lama said he had prayed for Ngawang. That was good for Phelgye but not for his family, who still have trouble with the Chinese government.

“Many things I tell you I can’t speak about openly,” Phelgye said. “But after Ngawang’s death, there was a big retaliation. Two to three times, people in his family go to jail. And the police hijack their cell phones. Every day police come to the house, but these things we can’t speak more of.” [Source]

On his blog, Tim Robertson writes about Lhakpa Tsering, who, as a university student in India, became one of the first Tibetans to self-immolate in 2006. He survived, and has since launched a Tibetan theater group as part of an effort to keep his language and culture alive among the refugee community in India:

Over the years, Lhakpa has moved away from thinking about the future of Tibet and its people through the narrow lens of independence. Separated from their traditional lands, Lhakpa worries the exile community is losing touch with Tibetan culture; Tibet Theatre is an effort to celebrate and preserve it in a world and era in which its intrinsic value is no longer simply assumed. He is relentlessly positive, but occasionally slides into despondency when discussing the declining Tibetan language literacy among exiles. The theatre, therefore, performs exclusively in Tibetan, but it’s becoming more difficult to find players – particularly young people – who speak the language fluently.

The problem, as Lhakpa sees it, is that children are no longer exposed to the language at a young age; among the exile community, English and Hindi are widely spoken, while Tibetan is often neglected. A few years ago, in addition to the work he was doing with the theatre (or, perhaps, as an extension of it), Lhakpa begun to dub popular foreign language cartoons in Tibetan. ‘These days,’ he explains, ‘parents are really busy going to work and they leave their children with their grandparents and the grandparents keep the children in front of the television. The small child – aged one, two, three years old – is watching Hindi or English cartoons. By the time they get to five or six, their Hindi and English is better than their Tibetan. Even their Tibetan is broken Tibetan.’ Lhakpa’s cartoons are now widely distributed amongst the exile community, increasing children’s exposure to Tibetan during the most important years for language development, without putting any additional burden on working families. As an activist during his university days in Bangalore, Lhakpa was propelled by a sense of urgency; international recognition and the realisation of an independent state were fixed as the ultimate goals. Now, that dream of – to use Benedict Anderson’s formulation – an ‘imagined community’ has been replaced by a desire to build and enrich his actual community. [Source]

The pace of self-immolations have slowed in recent years, but Tibet remains “an open air prison,” with little access for journalists and no tolerance of any dissent. With the Dalai Lama now 84 years old, Beijing is threatening to name his successor on Chinese soil, while the Dalai Lama himself has said he may be the last incarnation of his position or could reincarnate in India. The U.S. Congress has introduced legislation which would impose sanctions on China if Beijing were to name a successor. Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury reports for Economic Times:

The Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2019 was introduced in the House on Sept. 13 by Representative James McGovern, chairman of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and will be introduced in the Senate by Commission co-chair Senator Marco Rubio.

The bill will then be submitted for review by the Committee on Foreign Affairs and Committee on the Judiciary, and put forward for debate and passage into law at a later date.

In a September 16 statement, the Washington-based advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet welcomed the proposed legislation, with ICT president Matteo Mecacci calling Beijing’s claim of authority over the selection process part of a long-term strategy “to legitimize its rule in Tibet and gain soft power over Buddhist practitioners worldwide.” [Source]

Meanwhile, Citizen Lab has exposed a hacking campaign against members of the Tibetan community, including several people who work directly with the Dalai Lama and for the government-in-exile.


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