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Self-immolation and the renewal of the Tibet movement

October 19, 2011

By Tenzing Jigme (Toronto, Canada)

The self-immolations of the young monks are a very worrying trend and a very frustrating moment for Tibetans around the world. I can only imagine what people are feeling in the Ngaba district and across the plateau. While we in the free world can do our part in protesting and pressuring governments, the Tibetans in Tibet have no other means to show their frustrations, except self-sacrifice through an extremely painful desperate act. Imagine the courage it took to douse oneself in oil and lit it on fire.  Imagine shouting for your belief, while your skin slowly gets peeled off from the fire. Imagine the person believing that his sacrifice will bring greater attention to the violations occurring in Tibet.  Such self-sacrifice reminds us of the image of the calm burning Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang in Vietnam against the South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic prosecution of Buddhists monks. The recent example of self-immolation was the fruit seller in Tunisia, which sparked the spring revolution in the Middle East. Will the acts in Tibet bring similar reactions against the Chinese Community Party rule of Tibet?  A lot will depend on the mobilization of the Tibetan people inside Tibet. But before going into that question, I want to spend some time on the actual action that took place in Kirti.
Should man and women make that ultimate sacrifice for freedom? No matter the level of suffering, the preservation of life of one self and others should always be respected. I think that respect for lives is one of the core elements of non-violence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama also spoke against such acts which go against basic Buddhist teachings. So what happens after the acts have already taken place? It calls for a renewal of the Tibetan movement inside and outside of Tibet!
One of the issues facing the Tibetan movement, with my limited knowledge of development inside Tibet, is the lack of broader movement inside Tibet, especially among the lay people. This situation reminds me of the political theory of Exit, Loyalty and Voice by Albert O. Hirschman. While, the theory was developed for study of customer behaviours, it has been widely used in political studies of repressive systems. Here is my try in relating the theory to Tibet.  Individuals exit the system (exit civic and political participation) because of their feeling of powerlessness. They feel resigned to the existing state of affairs. The loyalty factor lies in individuals that enjoy the privilege of the system, such as the Tibetan party officials who feel safe and secure with the benefits secured on them for their obedience and loyalty.  It’s the voice elements that speak out against the system at great risks. The objective for a movement should be to increase the voice, by supporting in every means possible and encourage or at least influencing the other two elements to build broader mass mobilization.
Secondly, relating to the global Tibet support. Tibetan movement should not be cornered or stereotyped as only a struggle for religious freedom, but a broader struggle for freedom, democracy, and self-government. I once had a chance to speak to Gilles Duceppe, the former leader of the separatist Party Quebecois at a university gathering. He tried to differentiate the Tibetan struggle from the Quebec struggle by mentioning the religious element in Tibet. However, I am sure he knows that there are there are many similar elements linking the two people such as the common struggle for culture, language, self-government and so on. My point here is that Tibetans should not let other state and non-state actor to define the struggle. The framework of the struggle must be developed by Tibetans, of course with input from supporters, and then start to build a broader support around its key demands.
Returning back to the question about a likely spring revolution in Tibet, I am quite pessimistic about it. Without a mass movement, that involves a significant number of people, there is little chance of making a significant impact. More importantly, without more voice from the people who have either exited the system and those still loyal to the system, I don’t see much significant that can occur in Tibet. (I hope I am proved wrong).
The global political and economic clout of China has led to a move timid response from Government across the globe. The economic interest has taken over genuine belief of overcoming repression in China. It is frankly a tough situation for anyone in China and outside struggling for freedom, democracy and, human rights to receive attention in the current state of global economy. But this should not be an excuse to stay idle. Maybe the Tibetan movement needs to step up, instead of waiting for China to open a door for another round of negotiations. It might also mean building a stronger and dynamic partnership and network with other global activist movement that spread into specific driven contagious politics such as environment and human rights.
As for the chance of a mass movement inside Tibetan, I think the limit of people’s tolerance or even indifference towards injustice is reaching it turning point. Subsequently, how well the frustrations and anger are mobilized into a common unifying cause will make the difference between successful or unsuccessful movement. Lastly, the words of the British MP Simon Hughes are important when we face worrying trends of self-immolation of young Tibetan monks.  “We have an obligation to work way in every way possible to take action that would make it less likely that people are driven to take their own lives. We have to work in every way possible to give hope to the Tibetans that they would get the dignity to live their natural life.” Now let’s hope, the world pays serious attention and bring the much needed pressure on China to solve the Tibet issue before more violence occurs.
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