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Tibet Burning: The Politics of Self Immolations

Monday, Apr 2, 2012

Jamphel Yeshi's funerals (photo: Tenzin Dorjee)

The string of self-immolations inside Tibet—started in 2009 by a Kirti Monastery monk Tapey and which most recently on March 30 claimed two monks in Barkham County—sees no sign of letting up. On the contrary, despite one of the harshest crackdowns the Chinese government has unleashed in response, the state paranoia more acute and the military repression more penetrating than during the clampdown on the 2008 uprisings, and despite the abysmal response forthcoming from the international community, there seems to be at work an incredible wind fanning across the occupied Buddhist country that is at once frightening and pregnant with hope.

While analysts and observers scramble to offer logical explanations for the horrific protests unfolding at an alarmingly accelerated rate, much of which regurgitate the obvious and overlook the vital, it is safe to say the self-immolations suggest three undeniable truths. One: the Tibetan freedom struggle is way past its snapping point. Two: the fiery protests are a natural embodiment of the movement’s radicalization that was a long time coming. And three: the Tibetans inside Tibet are the true drivers of the narrative of the Tibetan freedom struggle, not the ones in the diaspora, not even the exile leadership headed by democratically elect Dr. Lobsang Sangay. Just as with the hardened earth and the grassy patches and the dusty grounds and the concrete sidewalks onto which have collapsed the 33 self-immolators (32 of them since last year alone), embers rolling out from their bodies as though rosary beads, the landscape of the Tibetan freedom movement now stands irreparably scorched and irredeemably altered.

A recurring point of reference has been the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc whose burning profile in meditation pose photographed in 1963 remains one of the most iconic images of self-immolation as a protest form.  The Vietnamese self-immolator was protesting against the then President Ngo Ding Dem’s Roman Catholic Administration for its religious persecution of the country’s Buddhist population. Thich Quang Duc and those who followed him were all from the monastic community. The same, to a great extent, is true with Tibetan self-immolators; majority of those who died on the spot and those who survived and were captured by Chinese authorities were monks or nuns. The parallel, however, stops here.

Dislocation of Context

Beyond that, any exaggerated location of religious impulse in the self-immolations is unwarranted. It both translates into fabrication as well as a disservice to the Tibetan martyrs. While some such distortions are ill articulated, others are downright manipulative. A case in point being an article titled “Man on Fire” (Himal, February 10, 2012) written by Bhuchung K. Tsering of International Campaign for Tibet, who termed the self-immolations as a precursor to a “Tibetan Buddhist Liberation Theology.”

The missionary-centric emphasis—inspired possibly by an internet-scouring binge involving the use of such key words as “Buddhism,” “Freedom,” “Liberation”—to support which the writer quotes an obscure Peruvian priest might have been left to content with its banality, had the overall article not been more damaging. A Vice President of the resource-rich Tibet advocacy group established to lobby support from the U.S. government, the position has lent itself into making him one of the foremost “Middle-Way” Approach propagandists. The diplomat’s utterances have typically centered on editing out Tibet’s political nationalism, the country’s independence aspirations being the target of his signature censorship. His writings, even on crises such as ones unfolding in Tibet, read like a brochure for a Buddhist spiritual utopia.

In his Himal piece, Bhuchung cautiously treads his truth-obfuscating maneuver. In between paragraphs, he devotes ample references to the word “political”. Only on a fuller reading do they reveal as being customary and serving a more dubious design: one of summoning disapproval upon any potential reading of pro-independence slant into the fiery protests. In perhaps the most spectacular narcissistic exercise in the history of Tibetan opinion writing, the writer concludes the article by quoting himself from another piece he wrote in 1998.

“Writing in the Tibetan Review at the time, this writer warned against reactions that unintentionally glorified death:” he writes before paraphrasing the following extract, “Thupten Ngodup’s action was the result of the courage of his conviction. Interpreting it in any other way so as to bolster a short-term political objective would not be doing justice to Thupten’s action. We should not take his action as a model……for other Tibetan freedom fighters to follow.”

The object of his umbrage is no doubt the Rangzen advocates, foremost among them Jamyang Norbu who had, shortly after the first exile self-immolation, written a studied piece on Pawo Thupten Ngodup, who was a dedicated member of the Tibetan Youth Congress, the oldest and most influential among Tibetan NGOs committed to restoring independence for Tibet; it was during the Delhi Police’s forcible interruption of an unto-death hunger strike organized by the activist group that the elderly Tibetan, in a blazing mass of flames, bolted to first exile martyrdom. These details Bhuchung conveniently sidesteps. As for the longer-term political objectives one is supposed to interpret from Pawo Ngodup’s action, one is offered little clue.

The Politics of Religion

In explaining the centrality of religion in the Tibetan nationalism vocabulary, Bhuchung not unfairly invokes the traditional usage of words such as “Tendra (Enemy of the Faith)” and Tensung Thanglang Maggar (Voluntary Force for the Defence of the Faith).” What is, again, left to suffer for casualty is the wider historical and etymological context that engendered such uniquely dichotomous and paradoxical native lexicon. In the olden Tibet, right up to the eve of the 1949 Chinese invasion, on account of the dominant role played by the three seats of Tibetan Buddhism and validated by the institution of the Dalai Lamas, Tibet’s religious identity was promoted at the exclusion of all national and political sovereignty-consolidating initiatives as we’ve come to appreciate in the modern terms. As Tsering Shakya says in his Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947, the final blow to Tibet’s efforts to garner international support came in the form of its non-existent international personality.

Furthermore, such simplistic reading as the writer employs discounts the complex role Tibetan monks have played on the national stage, both during factional infightings and in armed struggle against Communist Chinese aggressors. The trenchant rivalry in the 1940s between the Regent Redring and the incumbent Tagthra, who at various times fronted the Tibetan administration when the Dalai Lama was a minor, saw monks from the two establishments engage in fierce battles. As Melvyn Goldstein quoted a witness in his A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, as saying about the skirmishes, gunfire rang incessantly over the Lhasa city.”

Monks, and not just the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, played a pivotal role during the battles for Tibet’s independence in 1912-13 when the last of the Chinese soldiers were driven out of the country. Jamyang Norbu has written about the monk-Kalon Jampa Tendar who had disrobed and taken up a gun to lead the Tibetan army, and who had, upon Tibetan victory, to a demoralized group of surrendered Chinese soldiers, offered philosophical consolation along the lines of victory and defeat being two sides of the same coin, before packing them off along a safe route back home. One of the most unforgettable lines from “Shadow Circus, ” Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s documentary on the CIA-backed guerrilla resistance in Tibet, belongs to a former monk-freedom fighter who describes the experience of killing Chinese soldiers: “Each time we pulled the trigger and a Chinese soldier fell, we said Om Mani Pedme Hung!

To say that to those monks or former monks politics was secondary to religion would be a stretch. It was just that the language for political identity as defining an individual or a nation was not celebrated. In a vocabulary-rich civilization in which a mere title for a reincarnate lama could fill up pages, the term politics at best stood for administration, a system in which to support the flourishing of Buddhism. It warrants mentioning that in olden Tibet while flags and banners of every religious stripe were ubiquitous on rooftops of every monastery and select households, similar hoisting of the Tibetan national flag, outside the military exercises of the ragtag Tibetan army, became popular only after the Tibetans were forced into exile. This however cannot be construed to mean the Tibetans didn’t hold paramount their allegiance to the nation’s political sovereignty. Just as it cannot be argued that in their call for freedom for Tibet, or even return of His Holiness, the self-immolators were not staging a pointed political defiance to end the fifty-three years of China’s bloody occupation.

Rage and Rejection

However horrific or gruesome, self-immolation is, in essence, an act of conflating one’s body with space. In the case of self-immolators inside Tibet, if any religious connotation comes close, it seems to be the concept of Lu ski Chonme Phul wa (offering one’s body as flame)” in that by burning themselves these courageous protestors were shedding light on the sufferings of the larger Tibetan population under the boot heel of China’s tyrannical rule. Through turning themselves into human bonfire, they were projecting the most visible, the most visceral face to tens of thousands of others who, following more traditional forms of resistance (protests, pamphleteering, posters-circulating et all) are inevitably arrested, imprisoned and tortured, their subsequent fate unanimously sealed between deaths in prisons or release, after many years, back into the society as empty, broken shells.

Self-immolation, on the other hand, grants the protestor greater control over his body and a precious finality to his expression of resistance. One burns, one dies, refusing his tormentors any claim over his body. It bequeaths the protestor an unequivocal rejection of the oppressor state: the Communist Chinese government. Instead of languishing in another construct of colonialism such as a lock-up or a prison, one collapses and returns to the uncorrupted land of his birthright. His body on fire is his slogan, as are his vocal utterances for freedom for Tibet and return of His Holiness, which once released the expectation is that there will be no revocation, of the kind normally extracted by Chinese soldiers from traditional protestors through intense torture.

More than any ulterior Buddhist motives, the self-immolators seem driven by pure anger at the Chinese government, and not just for its unrelenting religious persecutions, most recently through the state-enforced patriotic re-education campaign instituted in 1994, which makes it mandatory for a monk or a nun to, among other avowals, pledge allegiance to the Communist Chinese government, denounce the Dalai Lama as a counter-revolutionary and a separatist, and accept the Chinese -appointed Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama over the candidate chosen by the Dalai Lama; Gedun Choekyi Nyima was abducted, at age six, in 1995 and his whereabouts have since remained unknown. To the monks, perennially exposed to arrests and expulsion, torture and deaths, for simply wanting to practice Buddhism in its true form, China’s oppressive policies toward their religion are recognizable for their singular message: Buddhism and Communist China simply cannot co-exist.

Conversely, this realization lays bare the contradiction inherent in the Middle Way Approach, which hopes for a scenario in which Communist China would allow for Tibet cultural autonomy as a reward for giving up its independence. It doesn’t seem impossible, hence, that the self-immolations are also a direct response to the failure of the Middle Way Approach Policy, which frames dialogue with China an end in itself, as opposed to being a means to an end. If this passive strategy required its proponents to wait and bide its time, the self-immolators have demonstrated it to be an unviable option.

In a note left behind by one of the early monk-self immolators, he had written: “Let alone living under the Communist China for one more day, I can not even live for one more minute.”

The Unspoken Communication

The acceleration of self-immolations became noticeable a week after Dr. Lobsang Sangay assumed office of the exile Tibetan government’s prime minister in April 2011, following the Dalai Lama’s announcement of complete retirement from the political scene. The first self-immolation in Tibet had taken place in February 2009 when a young Kirti Monastery monk Tapey had set himself on fire; Chinese soldiers shot at him and took him away. A second one, involving Phuntsog from the same monastery, occurred two years later, full five months before the historic shift in exile polity. At the swearing-in ceremony, the new Kalon Tripa intoned, “Let me be clear: the Tibetan Administration does not encourage protest (in Tibet) in part because we cannot forget the harsh response Chinese authorities hand down in the face of free and peaceful expression.” Within a week, a third self-immolation was reported from inside Tibet.

Since then, on an average, three to four such protests every month have taken place in Tibet, mostly concentrated in erstwhile Kham and Amdo provinces. The fiery self-sacrifices have prompted massive gatherings, which have, on at least two occasions, erupted in open revolt; in January, Chinese soldiers shot into two protests, killing at least ten protestors.

When Lobsang Sangay, in his speech, reminded the exile Tibetan gathering that it was not to him alone the Dalai Lama had devolved his power, it might have been the self-immolators who had taken to heart his concluding refrain: “Let us never forget: during our lifetime, our freedom struggle will meet the fate of justice or defeat. Tibet will either appear or disappear from the map of the world.”

This synchronicity of events is not accidental. An invisible communication line connects the Tibetans inside Tibet and their exile counterparts. The dialogue is unspoken and it is cryptic. No instructions, no orders, no appeals are involved. Over the Himalayan divide at least, no overt call to action is made. Given this scenario, China’s allegation of the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetan government being behind the self-immolations is absurd. During the 2008 uprisings in Tibet, when hundreds of Tibetans were killed or were reported missing, the best advice the exile leadership had for the remaining others who risked similar fate was to exercise “restraint.” Still, a slight movement in Dharamsala continues to affect events inside the Chinese-occupied region, just as it does in the opposite direction.

The 1987 through 1989 uprisings serve a good example. The revolts, which began with a protest on September 27 outside the Jokhang Cathedral in Lhasa, had their roots in a more somber event halfway across the world: the Dalai Lama’s address to the U.S Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The Tibetan leader had never before been accorded such a high-level platform which opportunity he used to introduce his Five Point Peace Plan, the last of which items, “Negotiations on the future status of Tibet and the relationship between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples should be started in earnest,” was the first hint at what would later become his Middle Way Approach Policy.

As Jampa Tsering, one of the first monk-protestors from the nearby Ganden Monastery, later told me for a story I was writing for Tibetan Bulletin, “We knew the risks were enormous, but we had to do something. We felt staying silent would be construed to mean we agreed with China’s defamation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” The exiled Tibetan leader’s recent global spotlight had irked Beijing and its propaganda had stepped up its denunciation campaigns, accusing the Dalai Lama of colluding with “Western Imperialists” to carry out their “splittist” designs on Tibet. And so, on a frosty September morning, Jampa and his fellow monk-protestors took three rounds of the famous shrine, then took out their hand-drawn Tibetan flags and shouted slogans demanding independence for Tibet. Within minutes Chinese soldiers showed up, beat up the protestors and drove them away. But the façade of calm that had reigned for less than last three decades had cracked. This unprecedented defiance sparked off a series of open revolts and thanks to images smuggled out by western tourists Tibet was yet again in newspaper headlines.

If Beijing’s ravenous defamation of the Dalai Lama’s “internationalizing” of Tibet had prompted the Lhasa protests, the events garnered for the Tibetan leader in 1988 another important audience: members of European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. Known as Strasbourg Proposal, the new policy His Holiness outlined was an expansion of the fifth point from the previous year. Independence for Tibet, which the Tibetan leader had repeatedly referred to on both occasions, was officially eschewed as a goal of the Tibetan struggle. In its place the three provinces of Tibet were to become an autonomous entity under the Beijing leadership’s political sovereignty. Meanwhile, inside Tibet the revolt continued. A year later in 1989, as Tibet reeled under martial law, the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2008 uprisings that shocked the world had begun with a procession by some 300 monks from Drepung Monastery to Lhasa’s city center. The monks’ main demand was the release of Drepung monks who had been detained in October of the previous year for whitewashing a wall in celebration of the conferment of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. The protest kicked off a wave of uprisings that spread across the entire Tibetan plateau, with an unprecedented participation by not only monks and nuns, but laypeople of all ages and backgrounds; the Chinese paramilitary crackdown that followed spawned the bloodiest reprisals the country had seen since the 1980’s uprisings.

The exile Free Tibet movement responded in kind. Activists across the world successfully stripped the Chinese Olympics Torch Relay of its perceived glory and turned Beijing’s bid for international legitimacy into a magnet for epic shame. A renewed vigor was injected into Tibet’s struggle for freedom; a new sense of hope prevailed. Hundreds of exiles and supporters embarked on a walk to Tibet and when the Indian police forcibly stopped the return march, just outside Tibet’s border with India, their collective spirit had already set foot on the Tibetan soil. In India, in Nepal and elsewhere in the world, activists from Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Women’s Association, and other organizations, forged an unbroken link of protests and other campaigns, including hunger strikes, which pulled any illusion of respite over its occupation of Tibet from under Beijing’s feet.

While the exile administration had seemed to make waiting for Beijing to talk its end game, the Free Tibet activists had brought the fight to China’s door. Media attention was minimal, so was the international diplomatic show of support, but Beijing knew, as clearly did the exile activists, that the real author driving the narrative for Tibet’s freedom struggle lied inside Tibet. As if on cue from the voices from behind the Himalayas, the only autonomy being realized, across the diaspora, was a certain decentralization of the Tibet movement. While Tibetans’ spiritual allegiance to His Holiness remained unwavering, every second Tibetan on social network sites such as Facebook had a new middle name: “Rangzen (independence).”

The Birth of Second Exile Martyr

Against this background, the self-immolation in Delhi of the 27-year-old martyr Jamphel Yeshi assumes immeasurable importance. The recent escapee from Tibet, by all accounts an unassuming youth with a devout bend of mind and an indefatigable appetite for Tibetan history, bolted across the Jantar Mantar ground, during a Tibetan protest ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit, in a raging cloud of fire. If, on account of the media blackout in Tibet, the 30-odd self-immolators’ sacrifices communicated only through a few grainy and obscure images, martyr Jamphel Yeshi’s searing figure more than filled up the naked eye of the camera.

Just as the self-immolators inside Tibet had projected a visceral front to the tens of thousands of other traditional protestors whose actions, as well as their fate, had been rendered invisible by China’s strong arm, martyr Jamphel Yeshi, in one single stroke, amplified the new radicalization of the Tibetan freedom struggle. The Tibet self-immolations had been given an intimate face. By the time he succumbed to his burns two days later, his blazing profile was captured by the major national and international medias. The massive 2008 uprisings made it to the cover of the New York Times only once; the featured image was that of Chinese soldiers behind plastic shields. When martyr Jamphel Yeshi reclaimed the honor, the image was that of a man on fire, as befitting the country he stood for.

It is no accident that the site for the fiery exile protest was the same ground on which the first Tibetan self-immolation had taken place. It would not amount to mere conjecture if one were to assume that Tapey, the Kirti monk, had been inspired by Pawo Thupten Ngodup, whose self-immolation in 1998 shook the Tibetan world. While comparisons have been drawn to the Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation had unleashed the Arab Spring, it is more likely that the inspiration for the self-immolators in Tibet had been of the indigenous kind.

Martyr Jamphel Yeshi only helped draw the circle full.

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  • avatar Tenpa Gashi says:

    Great analysis Topten. I agree wholeheartedly that we should refrain from making this into a religious oriented debate and focus on the true message of the martyrs. It is undeniable that there was a huge religious influence on politics back in the days, much like the middle age europe and to a lesser degree the American politics, and that it had played a huge role in our recent history too; but I still don’t think it is about religion at all. I know it sounds paradoxical to say that since most of the self-immolators wore the religious grab or used to, I believe the religious aspect is quite secondary to the national struggle. They just happen to be monks and nuns. As such, most of the discussion revolving around whether it was an unbuddhist act or not simply misses the point and further stymies the Tibetan struggle from fully progressing into the realm of human existence and instead it is once again relegated to the hollywood version of peaceful smiling monks; taxing in their haiku like incisive wisdom and insufferable squatting. It was unfortunate that we have not been able to turn this discussion into what it was really about: Chinese atrocities and illegal occupation of another country and instead been backed against the wall trying to defend the self-immolators from a relgious context. I believe we should refuse to entertain that question as simply irrelevant and then focus the discussion on the real reason why they are burning themselves.

  • avatar charcoal_hero says:

    Great article which sheds much needed light on the actual issues related to the self-immolations of Tibetans as opposed to the act as committed by others in both recent and distant history. Those devoted to the exile government’s “middle-way” approach as a political (and pseudo-religious) ideology rather than a means to concrete results for Tibet aught to take heed of Topden’s analysis.

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