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FEATURE ARTICLE: Burning for freedom May 21, 2012

Posted by southasiamasala in : Features, Powers, John, South Asia - General , trackback

John Powers, Australian National University

In April 1998 in Delhi, a Tibetan exile named Tupden Ngodup doused himself with petrol and calmly set himself alight. He then knelt and brought his hands together in a gesture of prayer as the flames consumed him. Despite the agony he must have endured, his physical demeanor remained calm as horrified bystanders watched him burn. His action sent shockwaves through the Tibetan community, both in exile and in the Tibetan Plateau. This was the first time a Tibetan had engaged in self-immolation, and opinions were divided. Many hailed him as a hero in the struggle against Chinese oppression, while others described his suicide as contrary to Buddhist principles. Most Tibetans acknowledged the depth of his commitment to the Tibetan struggle for freedom and human rights, but none chose to follow his example in the aftermath of his dramatic public demonstration of Tibetan discontent.

Ngodup’s suicide was an important event in an ongoing campaign of protest against the actions of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Tibet. It began in 1950 when Chinese troops crossed the Drichu River, the traditional border between Tibet and China, and marched to the capital, Lhasa. They announced that they had come to ‘liberate’ Tibetans from the feudal theocracy of the Dalai Lama’s government and that they would depart as soon as this was accomplished. Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had been assured by their leaders that they would be welcomed as saviors by the oppressed Tibetans, and so they were shocked and angered to hear people shouting “Han go home!” as they marched into the city.

Protests escalated over the next several years, and in March 1959 tens of thousands of Tibetans took to the streets demanding that the Chinese make good on their promises and leave the Plateau. This is referred to by Tibetans as the ‘First Tibetan National Uprising’ (Bod mi’i rang dbang sger langs dang po) and is commemorated every year with demonstrations all over the world.

The PRC responded to the 1959 protests with a violent crackdown that resulted in hundreds of deaths, widespread use of torture, devastation of the economy, and wholesale destruction of Tibet’s cultural heritage. By the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), only seven monasteries of an estimated 7,000 across the region remained undamaged. A lessening of repression in the late 1980s prompted Tibetans to again publicly air their grievances against the PRC occupation, and this was put down with a show of force. Hu Jintao (1942-), then Party Secretary for the Tibet Autonomous Region, declared martial law and brought in thousands of additional troops to quell the disturbance. His use of professional soldiers to subdue unarmed demonstrators brought him to the attention of hardliners in Beijing and was a key factor in his subsequent rise to power within the Chinese Communist Party.

Today Tibet resembles a military encampment. The airport outside Lhasa is always full of uniformed soldiers, and visitors commonly pass several military convoys on their way to the city. Every major monastery has an army barracks nearby, and some popular protest sites have several facilities for soldiers and paramilitary forces in the immediate vicinity.

The pervasive presence of armed soldiers who do not hesitate to use force against Tibetans has made it difficult to stage major protests. Nonetheless, sporadic small-scale demonstrations of discontent are a common occurrence across the Plateau. On the day I arrived in Lhasa in 2001, a lone Tibetan defiantly took down the PRC flag in the courtyard below the Potala, and then tried to raise a banned Tibetan flag. Paramilitary forces arrived, briefly beat him, and then took him away in a police van. Several foreign tourists who witnessed this expressed surprise at the restraint of the security personnel; they had expected much more graphic violence because of the recurring images of such tactics in the international media. I later learned that after being taken to a police station the protestor was beaten to death, and his family was forced to pay an exorbitant sum for his body. They stated that they could not be sure it was his because of the horrific injuries he had sustained.

In 2008 the largest and most widespread demonstrations in the history of the Plateau erupted. The first coincided with the anniversary of the 1959 uprising. Tens of thousands of Tibetans participated, from all walks of life and across all age groups. Most of those who were filmed by foreign camera crews appeared to be under 30, which meant that they had grown up under Chinese rule and had never known any other system. Their calls for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama came as a shock to PRC authorities, who had convinced themselves that Tibetans were grateful for their liberation and prospering as a result of government economic policies.

PRC propaganda reiterates the notion that the Dalai Lama has no influence in Tibet; those who remember his reign despise him, and most Tibetans are barely aware of his existence. As the scale of the uprising grew, however, he was transformed overnight into a ‘terrorist mastermind’ with a vast network of operatives in Tibet. Chinese television programs asserted that he personally orchestrated the demonstrations and that he had established ‘terrorist training camps’ in northern India. He was described as a hands-on instructor: he personally taught cadres knife-fighting, garroting, and how to use firearms and explosives. No mention was made of the fact that he was 76 and had been hospitalized that year. The Tibetans who participated were almost always referred to as ‘thugs’ (暴徒 baotu) in Chinese broadcasts, and the viewing public was presented with a picture of Tibetans as a violent, irrational mob.

As with previous demonstrations, the 2008 protests were put down with force. Reporters described long convoys of heavily armed troops pouring into the region. Unrest continued for several months, but a combination of incarceration, violence, and use of legal mechanisms eventually produced an uneasy calm. Sporadic public displays of discontent continued, but they were quickly suppressed by security forces. From the Tibetan perspective, they had risked their lives in an unprecedented attempt to draw the world’s attention to their plight, but the military and economic might of China prevented other countries from expressing anything beyond bland expressions of concern.

During the same period, another significant pressure valve was closed by the PRC. For decades, 1,000-4,000 Tibetans have escaped every year into exile. This is an arduous trek, across some of the world’s highest passes, and is generally undertaken during the winter, when there are fewer Chinese patrols. In recent years, however, Chinese troops have displaced Nepali soldiers and now occupy the border regions in the north of Nepal. It is nearly impossible for Tibetans to follow the traditional escape route that moves on to India.

This is the background to the current wave of self-immolations in Tibet. In 2009 a monk named Tapey re-enacted Ngodup’s suicide: he set himself alight in order to draw attention to the severity of the military crackdown in Tibet and the plight of its people. Chinese soldiers shot him several times as he burned. Subsequently, on 13 January and 16 March 2012, security forces beat self-immolating Tibetans with spiked batons as they writhed in pain. During a recent self-immolation, local Chinese screamed abuse at the burning Tibetan, and some threw stones at her as she burned. These responses highlight an important aspect of Chinese attitudes toward Tibetans: they are regarded as ingrates, and the PRC has become exasperated by their refusal to acknowledge the benevolence of the ‘Han big brothers and sisters’ who liberated them from the Dalai Lama’s government and subsequently poured vast amounts of money into the region for economic development. Decades of propaganda and forced indoctrination have failed to change the minds of a significant proportion of the Tibetan populace. The scale of recent protests is a clear sign that many residents of the Plateau refuse to view themselves as patriotic citizens of China or accept the notion that they ought to feel grateful to their Han benefactors.

For Tibetans, a similar dynamic applies. They also feel exasperated that despite decades of risking (and often losing) their lives to protest oppression the world takes little notice, and few foreign leaders are willing to anger China by questioning its actions in this remote region. Self-immolation appears to be a tactic that is adapted to the realities of the situation. The large-scale protests of 2008 failed to garner significant international attention or support, and the subsequent crackdown has made large gatherings impossible. The border with Nepal is effectively closed, and so Tibetans are left with few options. Chinese authorities have admitted that there is little they can do to stop a determined self-immolator, and so this is one of the few possibilities for public expression of discontent. Other peoples have resorted to violent tactics such as suicide bombings, but this is not an option for Tibetan Buddhists, who generally adhere to the Dalai Lama’s injunction that protests must be peaceful.

The first few cases of self-immolation from 2009-2011 elicited little attention internationally. Tibetan exile websites carried pictures and details, but the international press barely noticed. When the self-immolations reached double figures, stories began to appear, and in recent months the New York Times, BBC, CNN, and other major news organizations have run stories on this phenomenon. At the time of this writing, 35 Tibetans have burned themselves alive, and this trend shows no signs of abating. About 60% have occurred in Aba Prefecture, which lies outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. It has been cordoned off by security forces, and outsiders are forbidden to enter. Other self-immolations have occurred in various places across the Tibetan Plateau, and several exile Tibetans have followed suit in a demonstration of solidarity.

The Dalai Lama has been notably silent. He describes the situation as “very sad,” but has refused to condemn the self-immolators or ask them to stop. The Karmapa, another prominent reincarnate lama, issued a public statement asking that Tibetans refrain from burning themselves alive, but this appears to have had no effect.

Chinese authorities have responded in predictable ways. The first few self-immolators were described as ‘terrorists’ (恐怖分子 kongbufenzi), despite the fact that none attempted to inflict any damage on others. Aside from the possibility of being singed by flames, there is no potential for injury for onlookers. Recent official statements have attacked the character of the protestors. State media claimed that Lama Sobha, who self-immolated on 8 January 2012, did so out of shame over a sexual affair. A Xinhua article on 6 January 2012 stated that two men who self-immolated together “were involved in a number of thefts.” It implied that their suicide was based on guilt and remorse, and had nothing to do with discontent over Chinese rule. A recurrent theme is the Dalai Lama’s sinister manipulations; he is accused of personally contacting self-immolators and using his charisma to dupe naïve people into killing themselves for him.

Foreign commentators have also turned to well-worn clichés to explain this new tactic. A common theme is that these are acts of ‘desperation’ and ‘extreme anger,’ but there is little evidence for this. Most eyewitness accounts of self-immolators emphasize their calm demeanor. Many adopt religious postures and chant prayers. Several who have left statements express hope for the future and describe their actions as offerings for the benefit of others. In a nine-minute audio testimony by Lama Sobha discovered wrapped in his robes after his death, he states: “I do not undertake this action for myself, for any personal desire, or to earn honors…many Tibetan heroes (dpa’ bo) have died. I am sacrificing my body in order to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood and to seek repentance through this highest tantric commitment (dam tshig) of offering one’s body.” He expresses hope that through the sacrifices of himself and others a new day will dawn and that Tibetans will once again have freedom.

Contemporary Tibetans are aware of global trends, and many know of Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation on 4 January 2011 in protest against harassment by corrupt Tunisian bureaucrats, which literally ignited the ‘Arab Spring’ that toppled oppressive regimes in the Middle East. None of the Tibetan self-immolators have mentioned this event, but the timing of the recent wave of self-immolations—as well statements left behind that construed these acts as religious offerings intended to benefit others and prompt positive changes in Tibet—suggest that these protestors believe that a single act of extraordinary sacrifice can motivate others and put pressure on governments.

Self-immolation is a new phenomenon, and Tibetans are struggling to comprehend and express it. The Voice of America uses the neologism ‘rang lus mer bsregs,’ which means ‘burn one’s own body with fire,’ but this has not been generally adopted by Tibetan exiles, who have coined several expressions incorporating honorifics and laudatory epithets. One of these is ‘sku lus me mchod phul ba’i rgyal gces dpa’ bo rnams,’ ‘patriotic heroes who have made their bodies into a fire offering.’ There is probably a reflexive element in this: Chinese propaganda emphasizes ‘patriotism’ (rgyal gces), and (often mythical) Tibetans who supported PRC policies are commonly referred to as ‘heroes’ (dpa’ bo).

Some protestors have cited the PRC’s ‘patriotic education’ (爱国主义教育 aiguozhuyi jiaoyu; Tib. rgyal gces chos gces slob gso) campaign as the single most despised aspect of Chinese rule. This involves forced attendance at propaganda classes that generally run for 6-9 hours per day for months at a time. Students are forced to repeat formulaic slogans and denounce the Dalai Lama. This was noted as the main cause of Tibetan discontent during the 2008 protests, and has been given by several self-immolators as the primary reason for the decision to burn themselves alive.

The response by PRC authorities has been to increase and expand patriotic education. This was also the decision of a high-level meeting of Communist Party cadres held after the suppression of dissent in 2008, and it continues to be the cornerstone of PRC policy in Tibet. Several recent statements by PRC cadres on the wave of self-immolations have stressed the need for more patriotic education as the best corrective for discontent.

No apparent thought has been given to possibly easing repression, discussing grievances with Tibetans, or even acknowledging that there is widespread dissatisfaction among the indigenous populace of the Plateau. In light of these factors, it is likely that Tibetans will continue to burn themselves alive because they have few other options for drawing attention to a situation they regard as intolerable. The myopia of PRC authorities and their conviction that most Tibetans love them and feel deep gratitude for the collective generosity of the Chinese people ensures that Tibetans will continue to seek ways to express their feelings and put pressure on China to make real changes.


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