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Remembering Tapey

Monday, Jan 9, 2012

In the last item I posted on the Rangzen Alliance site I referred to a recent piece by Woeser. Having drawn on her comments for that post I think I would be doing her something of an injustice if I did not also bring up a subject that she’s been intensely writing and blogging about for some time now: the exclusion of any mention of Tapey, time and again, when the names (or numbers) of Tibetans who have committed self-immolations inside Tibet are brought up by Lobsang Sangay or discussed in several stories on the subject appearing in the exile media.

Woeser has been writing with great urgency about the issue on Facebook, on Twitter, and on her blog. In many ways she has been single-handedly fighting to have people understand the larger significance of the self-immolations. When one Chinese friend opined to her that “Tibetans who commit self-immolation are fairly lacking in sense… the authorities couldn’t care less about their cries [so] every life lost is to be deplored,” she immediately wrote “No one regrets the loss of life in self-immolation more than Tibetans,” but expressed strong resentment of the judgmental sense of superiority inherent in what she was being told. Her interlocutor was quick to add that “Woeser’s heart is gentle and merciful,” but Woeser insisted on sticking to the subject:

Whatever my heart is like, that’s not at issue… Your comments here are seemingly reasonable. What I resent is [the] feeling of some sort of superiority and infallibility… How can you know that Tibetans who commit self-immolation have no wisdom, no sense? [This is] something similar to what one gets from the authorities… I’ll thank you not to stand on some high stage and evaluate things without understanding the situation in Tibetan areas.

It is obvious to anyone following her writings that the studied refusal to name or count Tapey, whether by Lobsang Sangay or exile media organs has struck Woeser as wrong on the most basic level. This omission has surfaced in interviews with Lobsang Sangay on the Voice of Tibet and Radio Free Asia, and elsewhere, as in the most recent report on self-immolations carried on Phayul.

Most stunningly, reading the names of those inside Tibet who committed self-immolation Lobsang Sangay left Tapey unmentioned as he stood before the Dalai Lama at the Kalacakra Empowerment in Bodh Gaya, listing only those who had sacrificed themselves in 2011. This was difficult to take:

At this relatively important gathering, the Kalon Tripa again did not mention the first instance of self-immolation in 2009; the list he read did not include the first Tibetan inside Tibet to commit self-immolation: Tapey. I need to ask our Kalon Tripa: at bottom, what is this all about?

Is it that the Kalon Tripa doesn’t know? Last November, reporting on the situation inside Tibet during an official tour of Europe, he was short by one person in his figures for the number of Tibetans inside Tibet who committed self-immolation. At the time I called attention to this on my blog and on Facebook: The first incident of self-immolation inside Tibet took place on February 27, 2009; and the first Tibetan inside Tibet to commit self-immolation was the 20-year-old monk Tapey, from Kirti Monastery in Amdo Ngaba. Please! Don’t treat the sacrifice he made so neglectfully! When he committed self-immolation he was viciously shot by Communist soldiers and police. Up to now his whereabouts are unknown; whether he’s alive or dead is unknown. Please! Don’t forget Tapey!

Is the cleavage between Tibetans in exile and those inside Tibet partly to blame for the different perceptions of Tapey’s place in lists of those who have committed self-immolation ? Many exiles will certainly say there is no cleavage; their leadership may perhaps say so more adamantly. But the differences between exile society and that of communities inside Tibet have long been a subject of discussion and conversation on the part of Tibetans and non-Tibetans. New arrivals from Tibet have even voiced complaints about the way they tend to be regarded by more established exiles.

In this instance, just reading Woeser’s writings on the subject, one can’t help but sense how viscerally the cavalier exclusion of Tapey from the lists of those who have sacrificed themselves is felt by her and, no doubt, by many other Tibetans (a number of whom have made this clear on her Twitter page). For them there is no earthly reason for excluding Tapey—certainly not an insistence on a “start date” of March 2011, in order to be eligible for acknowledgement by the exile authorities. When Lobsang Sangay excluded Tapey from the list of those whose names were read before the Dalai Lama it seemed like more than negligence. Indeed, whatever the actual reason for the omission, it was felt as an insult. There are very urgent reasons for Woeser’s insistence on remembering Tapey whenever those who committed self-immolation are mentioned. It’s not simply that he was the first Tibetan inside Tibet to commit self-immolation, it’s what Woeser said about him, quoted above: “Up to now his whereabouts are unknown; whether he’s alive or dead is unknown. Please! Don’t forget Tapey!”

Woeser is not insisting on simple numerical accuracy. She is, in a sense, pleading for a life. Shot, wounded, carried away, whereabouts unknown… Woeser’s pleas for Tapey’s memory seem like nothing so much as a way of crying out “No, we do not—and will not—leave wounded comrades behind.” Is it because the sense of solidarity among Tibetans inside the PRC differs so drastically from that in exile society, where so many Tibetans now have no direct experience of Tibet, that Woeser’s sentiments seem to make no dent among exile authorities?

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  • avatar tibetanyak says:

    Between March 2009 to Jan 2012 (in a span of almost 3 years), 17 Tibetans self-immolated in Tibet.

    Between March 2011 to Jan 2012(in a span of less than a year), 16 Tibetans self-immolated in Tibet.

    Which one of the above makes more sense in politics in terms of urgency? Kalon Tripa as the political leader of Tibet is trying to gain political leverage by show casing the urgency. I don’t think these patriots had any intention of gaining some recognition for their act otherwise we could have inscribed their names in gold. In the art of statecraft, leaders maximize political leverage for the ultimate political goal which is what Kalon Tripa is doing exactly. Its the job of a historian to record names not that of a politician. Period.

  • avatar Elliot Sperling says:

    Tibetanyak’s response (above) sadly exemplifies exactly what Woeser has been calling attention to, time and time again: the fact that Tibetan politicians and Tibetan media all too often treat those who have committed self-immolation as mere numbers. In this case Tibetanyak’s excuse is supported with a false choice. One is asked to choose between two formulations:

    Between March 2009 to Jan 2012 (in a span of almost 3 years), 17 Tibetans self-immolated in Tibet.


    Between March 2011 to Jan 2012(in a span of less than a year), 16 Tibetans self-immolated in Tibet.

    As I said, this is a false choice. In even fewer words (if one is thinking about the impact of a sound bite) one can state simply and clearly:

    Since 2009 17 Tibetans have committed self-immolation in Tibet, 16 in the past twelve months alone.

    * * * * * * *

    So much for Tibetanyak’s first point, a flimsy construct at best. Tibetanyak’s second point outdoes the first in sheer cynicism and callousness. Taking up the question of remembering those Tibetans as individuals, of simply knowing who they are, Tibetanyak could hardly be more dismissive:

    I don’t think these patriots had any intention of gaining some recognition for their act [sic]… . Its [sic] the job of a historian to record names not that of a politician. Period.

    Period! Topic closed, one supposes.

    But both of Tibetanyak’s points are vitiated by simple reference to the most obvious instance of Tapey being ignored by the exile establishment, one amply described by Woeser in recent writings and blog posts: Lobsang Sangay’s studied, slow (no soundbite, that!) reading, in the presence of the Dalai Lama, of the names of those Tibetans inside Tibet who have committed self-immolation. Lobsang Sangay (no historian, he) read names, not numbers, contrary to Tibetanyak’s description of his job as a politician. And among those names… no mention whatsoever of Tapey.

    I am almost at a loss as to how Woeser’s heartfelt cry on Tapey’s behalf could be dismissed so unsympathetically, let alone by someone adopting the name “Tibetanyak.”Knowing that there is still a hope that he might yet be alive should mitigate even more forcefully in favor of Tapey’s not being forgotten; of his name being mentioned whenever the names of those who have committed self-immolation are mentioned.

    I said “almost at a loss.” Let me clarify this by repeating the last sentence of my original post:

    “Is it because the sense of solidarity among Tibetans inside the PRC differs so drastically from that in exile society, where so many Tibetans now have no direct experience of Tibet, that Woeser’s sentiments seem to make no dent among exile authorities?”

    • avatar tibetanyak says:

      In the cold world of politics there’s no space for emotion and in Dr.Sperling’s emotional argument above he seems to forget that there are at least three other Tibetans who deserves to be on the stage if emotion should be considered. In politics when a leader makes a statement, he should stick to it in all the public fora and Dr. Sangay exactly did that. He is aware of the fact that there are around two hundred thousand devotees (around 8,000 of them from Tibet although this figure can be contested)yet he held to his administration’s public statement which obviously has been crafted after a lot of deliberation.

      If all the names have to be read out, why leave out Pawo Thubten Ngodup who self-immolated in April 1998, Sherab Tsedor who self-immolated on 4 November 2011 and Lhakpa Tsering who self-immolated in November 2006. The figure should then read out as between April 1998 to January 2012 twenty Tibetans self-immolated. Aren’t they nationalistic enough to be counted as heroes?

      The obvious factor that comes into play here is the time frame
      to depict this new phenomenon in order maximize political leverage to achieve political objectives. Dr. Sangay as the political leader of Tibet is doing exactly that. Wang Lixiong called for village autonomy as a realistic prescription of building brick by brick to gain leverage out of the self-immolations. The political leader of Tibet should begin by achieving smaller demands first before the ultimate political goal of genuine autonomy for all the Tibetan areas in present day China.

      By the way although Thubten Ngodup’s self-immolation is considered to be the first case of Tibetan self-immolation, there does seem to be couple of earlier cases in Tibet which unfortunately could not be verified. Academics might soon trace these instances and we will have a better picture.

      Dr.Sperling rhetorically posits this question.

      “Is it because the sense of solidarity among Tibetans inside the PRC differs so drastically from that in exile society, where so many Tibetans now have no direct experience of Tibet, that Woeser’s sentiments seem to make no dent among exile authorities?”

      The above “stab at the heart” question elevates Woeser to some sort of a political cult figure who dictates terms in Tibetan politics. Clearly sentiments and emotions are major factors for Dr.Sperling. Nothing has gone wrong in the bond between Tibetans inside Tibet and the exiles. The bond is one that of fire tested gold. Tibetans inside Tibet are doing their job, Kalon Tripa is doing his job, Woeser is doing her job and this writer is also doing his/her part in politics. The exiles have experienced international politics first hand and in the past over five decades have learned that there is no place for emotion in politics and we are too simple. We are coming out of linear thinking and starting to get complicated in order to stay relevant and keep burning the fire called Tibet. In this complexity nothing will be forgotten as PRC will foolishly act as the catalyst for this extraordinary bond between His Holiness, the Tibetans inside Tibet and the exiles. I commend Dr.Sangay’s sense of statecraft which obviously is a result of good education.

  • avatar Elliot Sperling says:

    Well, give Tibetanyak (and the acolytes of the Kalon Tripa)` credit for being persistent, if not consistent. Rather than attempt to deal with the holes in his argument (pointed out above, in my original response), Tibetanyak has gone for the kitchen sink approach, throwing in anything, regardless of its irrelevance. So… he points out that, unlike me and my argument, politics is not emotional (on what planet does he live?); that I am treating Woeser like a cult figure (meaning, I guess, that I think she’s right about not forgetting Tapey); etc., etc.

    Actually, he doesn’t say I misquote or misinterpret her… preferring affected offence at the simple fact of it being me who is quoting her. This may seem tactically optimal for him—I can see why he might not want to be seen directly complaining about the content of her several posts, tweets, etc., on this issue (which are more numerous than what has been made available in English). So instead we have a nice, context-empty, somewhat condescending pat-on-the-back: “Woeser is doing her job.”

    And a change of subject, asking why those who have committed self-immolation outside Tibet shouldn’t be included as well in references to self-immolation. Well of course they should if one is enumerating all instances of self-immolation. But Woeser was asking why Tapey was specifically excluded from lists of those who committed self-immolation inside Tibet. And to that, the response is that the Kalon Tripa can’t be asked to correct himself… certainly not publicly! (“In politics when a leader makes a statement, he should stick to it in all the public fora…”) Now politicians should certainly be criticized when they make contradictory statements or promise contradictory policies in order to pander to different constituencies. But when they correct misstatements of fact? Leaders (and their spokespersons) certainly correct themselves often enough. And this is where it gets interesting. Many political headaches start as matters that could be easily fixed by being acknowledged for what they are. But they become major problems when they are swept under the rug or simply wished away. Thus the Kalon Tripa’s loyal minions are now pressed into political-response mode in defense of something that could have been resolved in seconds with a short correction-of-previous-statements. And so, enter Tibetanyak with his just-cited formula, “In politics when a leader makes a statement, he should stick to it in all the public fora…” Meaning what, exactly? That Tapey’s exclusion from the lists of those who have committed self-immolation in Tibet is now some sort of official policy line?!

    By the way, is Tibetanyak compiling some sort of guide to the practice of politics? No emotion, no retraction of statements, etc.? Is it really incumbent on Tibetan politicians to not feel anything about Tapey; to not feel any need to utter his name with those of others who have committed self-immolation, particularly bearing in mind that his fate remains unknown?

    Perhaps Tibetanyak might do Woeser the courtesy of reading her arguments and addressing them directly, rather than contenting himself with his pat-on-the-back. Then he might wish to consider the crux of the question I asked at the end of my post (the context within which I phrased it positively offends him, poor yak): why is it then that “her sentiments seem to make no dent among exile authorities?”

  • avatar Christophe Besuchet says:

    There’s no room for doubt that Woeser’s remark on the Kalon Tripa’s ommission has offended many of his supporters, if not the Kalon Tripa himself. Whereas Woeser was viewed until recently as a hero by all Tibetans, now critical remarks are popping out here and there, such as in a recent Phayul’s forum. Would it be that Kalon Tripa’s henchmen are working at demeaning Woeser?

  • avatar tibetanyak says:

    Again the angry young man’s emotional approach in Dr.Sperling’s response to me making his arguments using Woeser as a shield and divert the debate. Let me tackle it as you like it.

    Woeser is patriotic and a brave political commentator, there is no doubt about that. But she is not the political leader of Tibet although a leader in her own right with heavy influence. Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay is the political leader of Tibet with mandate of the people expressed through elections in 2011. He represents hope of the people especially after cessation of Ganden Phodrang government of Tibet. Contesting against veterans like TN Tethong and Tashi Wangdi who were popular among the Tibetan elites (Gangkyi folks and well educated Tibetans), LS won the ordinary people’s (who form base in the pyramid of Tibetan society just like any other society) trust in him. This base in the people pyramid are not ignorant as some have assumed. Tibetan society is a highly politicized society and they have chosen him in full political awareness. Hence let Kalon Tripa do his job and deliver the goods according to his statecraft. The activist in him is alive which can be seen in his Kashag’s call for coordinated global movement in support of Tibet on 8 February. Prof. Rinpoche during his two terms never made such a call instead called for scaling down of international activities of Tibet in order to make the negotiations fruitful which was his goal. Although negotiations did meet its objective in sending the Tibetan message straight and clear, it is doubtful whether it will bear any solution due to hard-headedness of PRC. Xi Jinping in his July 2011 speech in Tibet has made it clear that there will be no compromise whatsoever in the Party policy on Tibet. PRC is on the verge of becoming a superpower and there is no way a global intervention on Tibet is possible. 17 Tibetans have self-immolated and hundreds are in arbitrary detention in Tibet but where is that so-called global humanitarian intervention and R2P in Tibet? It is not going to happen. Geopolitics, China’s economic and military power effectively blocks such intervention. In the absence of such a possibility of global intervention, a Tibetan uprising and self-immolations will not bear any result in bringing solution for Tibet. These matyrs have definitely highlighted Tibet’s fate on the global stage but awareness, sympathy and solidarity will not make any difference until the political stars are aligned right. Take the case of Syria, regime change is not possible despite the death of thousands of protesters (7000 at the last count) due to Russian support to Assad for economic reasons and fear of its second round of political implosion. Gadafi’s ouster and eventually his death was possible due to the perfect alignment of political stars. The rebellion in Libya brought fruit as it was timed right to bring NATO’s intervention to “save civilian lives”. Timing and being opportunistic is what matters in politics and simply put the timing is not right for us right now. With all due respect to the matyrs, it has failed to bring any intervention in Tibet. And it will not even after the 100th self-immolation under current circumstances.

    The rebellion in 50s and later the resistance movement through Nepal has led to the death of thousands of Tibetan heroes but were ditched by Nixon’s America patching up with PRC to serve their interest. Who cared about Tibet’s interest then? America is now paying the price for Nixon’s handshake in raising a monster if one dissects carefully the current occupy movement in US.

    No two sword can live together in a sheath and America’s war with China is imminent. Contemporary history, state behaviour and pattern shows that America and its coalition will have to push PRC down the cliff to maintain the west oriented world order. It will then be our opportunity to seize the moment and not get betrayed again. Until the political stars are not rightly aligned, even thousands of Tibetan lives will not bear any fruit. It will be sacrifices to keep nationalism and the Tibet issue alive. The election of a young Kalon Tripa in Lobsang Sangay has strengthened Tibet’s movement for her obvious long battle with PRC should the negotiations fail which is now on a back channel mode and will most likely not bear any result.

    It is in this light why Kalon Tripa Lobsang Sangay matters and we should let him do his job. He is very clear in his statecraft and I am impressed by his sound mindedness.

    Two quick points now.

    Can Woeser or Dr.Sperling confirm that Tapey is the first case of self-immolation in Tibet? Common Dr. Sperling, history is your field and I hope to get a precise answer from you.

    Secondly, there are other Tibetans in occupied Tibet besides Woeser who also risk imprisonment for speaking out and expressing their opinion. Watch this music video ( from Tibet sung by Phuntsok Topgyal and composed by Dhube. This is the connection that LS makes and the hope he gives to Tibetans in Tibet. Can you name me one contemporary song sung in Tibet which is dedicated to an exiled political leader besides His Holiness. Not even Prof. Rinpoche received such an honour.

    Aaro Christrophe! You should watch the links below before labeling me a LS henchman. These veterans who have spent over three decades in fucking Chinese prisons know what they are speaking. They also should be henchmen according to your standards.

    Dr. Sperling is here, Christophe is here, hoping to see team leader JN here soon. Waiting for JN!

  • avatar Christophe Besuchet says:


    Weird. You accuse Elliot Sperling of diverting the debate and yet you don’t reply to any points he raised in his post or comments. Instead — probably because a lack of arguments — you decide to demean the actions of self-immolators in Tibet in order to justify (and praise) the “statecraft” of Lobsang Sangay, his “sound mindedness” and his inexcusable omission of Tapey. In fact, looking at your vilification of any forms of resistance inside Tibet, I am not sure if the bulk of your last comment wasn’t actually addressed to my own piece, in which I argue that only a renewed struggle against the Chinese occupation, organized and more confrontational, would drive dedicated people inside Tibet to undertake actions that do not forcibly involve setting oneself on fire.

    Here, I won’t even argue with you. The overall support shown for this thesis, demonstrated through spontaneous translations and republications (including from strong Middle Way advocates), speaks for itself. However, let me reply to three of your most disturbing points.

    First, regarding Lobsang Sangay, what do you mean by “the activist in him is alive”? Would the call he made for vigils on 8 February elevate him to the status of an activist? This appeal is exactly what I denounce as calls for non-action: the word “vigil” refers to stationery and silent protests, not to actions. This is definitely not a sign of great leadership. Would Churchill have been called a great leader if he had requested British citizens to recite the Lord’s Prayer while their soldiers and the Jews were being wiped out by Nazi forces?

    Secondly, your secret admiration for Xi Jinping’s intransigence, on China becoming a superpower and for the impossibility of global intervention leaves me perplexed — especially when you mention right afterwards an eventual “perfect” alignment of stars for an intervention from the US and its coalition… If you really believe that such a day will come, why would you sell out Tibet’s independence now to a regime that will not compromise and that will, according to your theory, be defeated someday?

    Finally, regarding Takna Jigme Zangpo and Palden Gyatso, whose support for Lobsang Sangay you kindly shared via these YouTube videos, I am nowhere accusing them of being the Kalon Tripa’s henchmen — how would I dare? As far as I know, they do not defend the Kalon Tripa’s omission of Tapey nor speak against Woeser’s comments. Besides, I talked several times with Takna Jigme Zangpo and I can ensure you that he sees Rangzen as the only solution for Tibet. I am convinced that, in soliciting Jigme Zangpo’s support, Lobsang Sangay did not tell him, as he told Asia Times, “I stood on the platform of the Middle Way and I won the election on the Middle Way and for the next five years I will stick to the policy”. Did he?

    PS: Please, do not associate my name with those of Elliot Sperling and Jamyang Norbu; it is an insult for them. Even if this flatters my ego, I definitely cannot be compared with these two Tibet experts.

  • avatar Elliot Sperling says:

    I always thought that most Tibetans had little liking for fish but Tibetanyak seems to have an insatiable appetite for red herrings… So he continues throwing out all manner of irrelevancies in order to avoid dealing with the fact that not mentioning Tapey among those who have committed self-immolation risks letting someone who may yet be alive be forgotten; and this at a time when public awareness of him just might prove crucial to his fate.

    So instead—and with great emotionalism(!)—he brings up all manner of other things: the Kalon Tripa was elected, people sing songs about him, war between the U.S. and China is imminent (!), etc., etc. It’s a pretty silly stew, topped by his “High Noon”-style demand that Jamyang Norbu present himself on Main Street for a verbal shootout. None of this, of course, has anything to do with the fate of Tapey and the need to use every opportunity to see that he is not forgotten.

    I noted previously that Tibetanyak has his own, uh “idiosyncratic” understanding of politics (see imminent war between the U.S. and China, above). And here he comes up with another bit of dogma: “let Kalon Tripa do his job.” I had no idea he was not being allowed to do his job! Have people in Gankyi gone on strike and barricaded the door to his office? Have they cut off his electricity? No? Well, then the only reasonable interpretation of Tibetanyak’s cri de coeur is that he wants people to believe that criticism of the Kalon Tripa constitutes a hindrance to his doing his job… and therefore should cease. All this to avoid addressing the serious issue of Tapey being forgotten through purposeful exclusion from the lists of those who have committed self-immolation in Tibet…

  • avatar Tsedorji says:

    I just have to ask, who are you tibetanyak? I know of Elliot Sperling, Christophe Besuchet, I have seen him in Dasa many times and of course there is no self-respecting Tibetan who does not know Jamyang Norbu. He da man! Whereas, you I do not know. Everone here is using their real name but you. You sound like you are speaking in 3rd person when you speak of LS. Just curious.

  • avatar Tenpa Gashi says:

    Boy, it must be really tiring to be arguing with somebody who has no sense of what he is arguing about and goes around and around in a fishing boat – hauling in red herrings by the bucket. This ‘just let him do his job’ bullshit needs to take it in the rear because that is such a retarded point. If you are a politician and you are in politics, criticism of public policies or lack thereof, is a part and parcel of that position. Why do we Tibetans insist upon creating a demi-god status for Lobsang Sangey where he must remain unaccountable and untouchable for the term of his engagement, as if he has inherited some sort of halo from H.H along with his Silon post. Jamyang Norbu la, Christ, and of course Prof. Sperling are doing their job as ‘citizens’ and as experts on the Tibet – recognized or not, citizenship renewed or not – and this constant call for them to somehow come up with the blueprint for total emancipation of Tibet is ridiculous and is more of the reflection of the person’s intellilect rather than their inactivity. Kudos for Prof. Sperling for sticking to the point and not chasing ghosts of fish. Maybe the two fish I met in Goa knew about this profiling of this particular specie. It is quite ominous if true.

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