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Tibetans, Do Not Burn Thyselves

Tibetans, Do Not Burn Thyselves

By Sanjena Sathian

Tibetan and Indian students hold pictures of Tibetans who self-immolated during a protest in New Delhi, on Aug. 29, 2012.
SourceSajjad Hussain/Getty


Because the case of Tibet has persisted for too long. 

By Sanjena Sathian

One afternoon in 2009, a monk holding his national flag lit himself on fire — and ignited a raging conflagration in one of the most muffled parts of the world: Tibetans burning themselves in protest of Chinese occupation. More than 140 Tibetans burned themselves in protest over the ensuing years, advocacy groups say. The youngest was 15. 

The burnings peaked in 2012, but they could easily return in a climate where suicide bombers otherwise hold the franchise on self-harm as public protest. No, I’m not comparing self-immolation, which is by nature a solely self-harming physical act, to violent jihadism, which seeks to harm nonbelievers, the more the better. But there is a whiff of something similar, metaphorically and emotionally: ideologies that tell vulnerable people their lives — and deaths — have purpose. That is wrong. Someone should call for the Tibetan people to halt their burnings and turn to other forms of protest. 

The ideal person would be the Dalai Lama. He never has. Though we couldn’t grab His Holiness’ time for an interview through spokespeople, he’s articulated his reasons before: He worries China will use the protests against him, painting him as approving of them. He didn’t want to devalue the lives of those who had self-immolated. If not him, then perhaps another prominent monk. 

To be sure, we’re outside Tibet and cannot empathize with the conditions there. (The Dalai Lama is himself exiled in India. Even his image is banned in his homeland.) But it’s worth noting that self-immolation is “a new element in the vocabulary of Tibetan activism,” says Robert Barnett, director of modern Tibet studies at Columbia University. Indeed, he argues there’s no grounding for the practice in Buddhism. It was in fact modeled off of Chinese protest practices, not the 1960s Vietnam immolations, as is often thought, Barnett says.

Those who self-immolate in protest see it as “self-sacrifice to express their feelings,” says Tibetan Bhuchung Tsering, vice president of the International Campaign for Tibet. He says that when the count of burnings hit 104 in 2013, the Chinese government was forced to respond. Alistair Currie, of London-based Free Tibet, says participants may believe that a high number of immolations would force the international community’s hand.

Clearly, though, that’s not been the case. It may be a good sign that the self-immolations are down in count these days — Free Tibet counts only two this year — but it also may be a symbol of resignation to China, says Barnett. Can Tibetans use the abatement of such protests to speak in other voices? Perhaps that is a privilege belonging only to the diaspora; after all, we can’t hear those from within China. “Is this [self-immolation] the best way for people to do something? I don’t think so,” says Tsering. “I don’t call that as a protest — it’s an assertion of their rights.” Tsering believes instead in using China’s system against it, arguing for Tibetans’ rights within the Chinese constitution — for instance, to preserve the language.

Coming up is the Dalai Lama’s birthday. Currie says the stateless nation will spend its time celebrating, not discussing protest. Maybe though, just maybe, the occasion could gift His Holiness with something different. I speak with privilege. Perhaps I’m wrong.

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