I do not know if you are like me, but I find it extremely distressing to see how commonly the adjective “desperate” has been used by the media and Tibetans in exile to describe the self-immolation protests that have taken place in Tibet since 2009 — seventeen cases so far as I write this. Phrases such as “truly desperate acts” or “desperate self-immolation” have become part of the usual vocabulary and are repeated automatically, as if writers, government officials and politicians do not find it necessary to analyze for themselves the wider ambitions behind these actions.
Etymologically, the word desperation comes from the Latin desperatus, or “deprived of hopes”, and carries a sense of misery and dejection when it is applied to protest actions. Self-immolation by women and girls in Afghanistan (103 cases reported between March 2009 and March 2010) can probably be referred to as “desperate acts” as those who carry them out prefer to die rather than to live under constant domestic violence and abuse. When questioned about their motives, Afghan women who survived their suicide attempts usually replied that they felt as if they had “no way out”. One of them, when asked whether she had a message for other women, even replied: “Don’t burn yourself. If you want a way out, use a gun: it’s less painful.”
Tibetan self-immolations are entirely different. First, all available evidence indicates that they are motivated by a greater cause, not by depression, social pressure or financial burdens. As Sopa Tulku, a revered high-ranking lama who immolated himself in Golok Darlak on 8 January this year, is reported to have written: “I am not self-immolating for my personal interests or problems, but for the six million Tibetans who have no freedom and for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.” Secondly, if Tibetans are deprived of their freedom, they are not deprived of hope. Starting with Thupten Ngodup, the first Tibetan known to have set himself on fire in April 1998 in New Delhi, those instances of self-immola! tion about which we have any background information can be said to have been carried out by happy and healthy people, who have no reason to die apart from offering their lives to the struggle against China’s occupation of Tibet. Sopa Tulku, again, was very clear in his political testament about not being desperate: “Tibetans should not loose hope in the future, a day of happiness will surely dawn”. This sense of optimism extends even to relatives; the mother of the 22-year-old Lobsang Jamyang, who immolated himself on 14 January, declared that her family “has no regret for his death” as he had “sacrificed his life for the Tibetan cause.”
The hopes derived from such fearless protests have also had a strong impact on those who are resisting China’s oppression in occupied Tibet. Ngawang Choephel, an ethnomusicologist and filmmaker who spent six years in a Chinese jail on fabricated spying charges, noted recently: “In 1997 [sic], when I was in prison, I heard news of Thupten Ngodup’s self-immolation in India. (…) I was encouraged and energized, like all other political prisoners in Tibet because we felt that something would happen for Tibet.” He further added: “I am sure that most of the Tibetans in Tibet who heard about Thupten Ngodup’s historic sacrifice must have been inspired and moved.”
There is definitely no sense of despair that we know of in any of these acts of protest. Nor any hopelessness. As far as we can tell, these self-immolations are, like every single act of resistance in Tibet, a striking example of confident resiliency, of high hopes and of unflinching determination. These sacrifices carry the dream and the moral strength of an entire nation and cannot be, carelessly or sarcastically, reduced to some tragic but useless individual acts.
This abuse of the word “desperate”, unintentional as it may be for many, is damaging to these valiant actions and this must be pointed out. It is firstly injurious to the person’s memory: it shows a troubling lack of respect for his or her motives, determination and aspirations. By emphasizing some unsubstantiated anguish and despair, a heroic act will be remembered merely as a means of escape or, worse, as a sign of weakness and cowardice. In the collective psyche, this could have detrimental consequences. The Chinese regime understands very well the need to demean the memory of those who have committed self-immolation and was, for example, quick to accuse, albeit without success, Sopa Tulku of suicide because of a secret love affair. But it is also harmful to the promise these self-immolations can represent for a renewed struggle against China’s occupation: by branding them desperate and viewing them as hopeless protests, we risk nipping in the bud any h! ope of a potential revolution. And here we are touching a much more sensitive issue, at least as far as the Tibetan leadership in Dharamshala is concerned.
When committing self-immolation, these people certainly had several objectives in mind. They probably did not think of just carrying out a one-shot dramatic action, but considered their sacrifices as sparks that would set off a larger resistance movement. It is usually explained that their aim was just to draw the world’s attention to Chinese repression in Tibet, but this is not entirely true. Many Tibetans, in Tibet and in exile, have indeed become disheartened about meaningful political engagement on their behalf by foreign countries. Besides, not a single reference was made by the self-immolators to the United Nations or to any foreign government in their messages. The wider goal of these self-immolations, probably not consciously planned but definitely anticipated, was to serve as a wake-up call for Tibetans to unite and stand up against the Chinese occupation. There is little doubt about this. These acts of defiance have indeed inspired courage in those with the wi! ll to resist, and their authors must have carefully considered the obvious eventuality of such a chain reaction. The pro-independence protests that broke out in the Golok region following Sopa Tulku’s self-immolation, or in Ngaba county following that of Lobsang Jamyang, clearly demonstrate how theses actions acted as catalysts — even if the second protest seems to have been triggered by the inhumane beating of Lobsang Jamyang, still in flames, by the police forces.
It would be very surprising if Tibetans who set themselves on fire, especially nuns and monks trained in the field of causality, were not conscious of the fact that their actions can have tremendous consequences and can capture the discontent and frustration of their compatriots. They may (or may not) have heard of Mohamed Bouazizi, the man whose self-immolation sparked last year’s Tunisian revolution and inspired the wider Arab Spring, but they definitely realize the immense potential of unrest triggered by their actions. Looking at the disproportionate number of Chinese paramilitary troops, police forces and SWAT teams deployed in the restive areas in Tibet, it leaves no room for doubt that Beijing realizes the explosive nature of these protests and is taking the threats posed by them very seriously. Why, then, does Dharamshala not take advantage of the situation?
The Tibetan Government-in-Exile, obstinate and a prisoner of its own Middle Way Approach, has actually every reason to minimize the scope of these self-immolations. First, these confrontational actions go against the official policy of appeasement which, high-ranking officials are convinced, is the only key to resolving the conflict. But more importantly, demands for independence by some of the self-immolators, and references to Tibet as a “nation” (rgyal-khab) by others, clearly show the meager support for “genuine autonomy”.
It should come therefore as no surprise that the Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay refers to these acts of self-immolation in The Washington Post as “desperate acts” or declares in a recent interview that “monks are self-immolating out of helplessness”. Nor should it comes as a surprise when, reading the names of all those who set themselves on fire in Tibet, the same prime minister, in front of nearly 200,000 Tibetans who had gathered in Bodh Gaya for the Kalachakra teachings, somehow omitted the name of 20-year-old Tapey, the first person who committ! ed self-immolation in Tibet in February 2009.
But despite Dharamshala’s reluctance to acknowledge the true ambitions of self-immolators and the foreign media’s refusal to portray the Tibetan struggle for what it is, something urgently needs to be undertaken to ensure that these actions do not happen indefinitely. Putting an end to self-immolations — and making certain they serve a real purpose — will, however, not be achieved simply by lifting the sieges of monasteries and withdrawing paramilitary forces from restive areas. Tanks and machine guns are merely a visible symptom of China’s ruthless domination. No matter how much relief Chinese “restraint” (the word used by the US Government’s Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues) would provide to local residents, it would represent no more than a short-term fix. One day or another, pro! tests will break out again, most probably on a more radical scale and involving greater casualties.
Renewed resistance, on the other hand, organized and more confrontational, would most probably drive dedicated people inside Tibet to undertake actions that do not forcibly involve setting oneself on fire. Since 2008, Tibetans in Tibet have clearly demonstrated their determination and courage. The resistance movement against China’s occupation has been continuously growing in that four-year span and has reached a stage unknown since the 1950s. Intellectuals and artists who had previously avoided taking a stand are now firmly on board, calls for independence and the use of the Tibetan national flag have become more frequent than ever, and acts of non-cooperation, embodied in the very inspiring Lhakar movement, are increasingly carried out throughout Tibet. All over the country a new sense of national identity is growing, new forms of resistance are being invented; all over the country discontent is boiling. ! Such a conjuncture occurs only rarely.
In such circumstances, it is not hard to imagine that an official appeal by Dharamshala to unite and engage in major non-violent actions would have a tremendous effect in Tibet. Calling for a country-wide non-cooperation movement, for example, would undoubtedly be hailed and, as much as conditions allow, embraced by the majority of Tibetans living under Chinese domination. Such a step would also, it is worth noting, confer solid legitimacy on the new leadership in exile whose election was enthusiastically followed in Tibet and in whom Tibetans in Tibet have still high hopes. However, once again I have to express my doubts about the Tibetan Government-in-Exile’s willingness to lead the struggle. The Middle Way Approach is not only a claim for autonomy, it has also proven to be a call for non-action and surrender, and it has never served to provide direction to Tibetans in Tibet (apart, maybe, from advocating collaboration with the Chinese occupiers). Based on the prime m! inister’s statements and on his fear of ruthless sanctions from China, Dharamshala will definitely not encourage political protests in Tibet anytime soon.
But I am convinced of one thing: without taking Tibetan resistance to a new level, there is little chance that self-immolations and similar extreme actions will stop. Going back to the prior status quo is not an option and Tibetans are now approaching a point where there is no turning back. The “Tsampa Revolution”, as coined by Jigme Ugen, is on the move. To quote lyrics by the British singer Peter Gabriel, written after the death of Steven Biko in a South African jail: “You can blow out a candle, but you cannot blow out a fire; once the flames begin to catch, the wind will blow it higher.”
These self-immolators are true freedom fighters, who use the ultimate form of non-violent action — the most painful one — to free their country from oppression. The minimum we ought to do is to view their sacrifices for what they are, not for what our myopic approach wishes them to be. These men and women are not desperate victims of China’s totalitarianism. They are not people who gave in to Chinese might because they were “deprived of hope”. They are sacrificing themselves for the benefit of their countrymen and women, and for the restoration of a nation’s pride, because they know their actions can make a difference. Because they are carrying the hope that Tibet will be free some day. They are the beacons of a renewed struggle against China’s tyranny and an inspiration for millions of Tibetans to unite and fight for their independence. May the sacrifices of these Tibetan self-immolators mark the beginning of Communist China’s downfall.