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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Burning Desire For Freedom

November 9, 2011

November 14, 2011 Vol. 178 No. 19 / U.S. Edition
After 60 years of Chinese rule, some Tibetan monks have resorted to self-immolation. Where will their protests lead?

By: Hannah Beech/Tawu; With reporting by Chengcheng Jiang/Tawu
Section: Features / World / Tibet
Starting Page: 46Word Count: 2194

 
There are no flowers or memorials to mark the spot where Tsewang Norbu died. On Aug. 15, the 29-year-old Tibetan monk living in the remote Chinese outpost of Tawu gulped down kerosene, bathed his body in the combustible liquid and struck a match. As he burned in the center of town, Norbu shouted for freedom in Tibet and screamed his love for the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader. Two and a half months later, under the cover of night, I visit the bridge in Tawu (or Daofu in Chinese) where Norbu ended his life. The town is under virtual lockdown. New security cameras affixed to lampposts record all movements. Half a block away, a few Chinese police cradle machine guns. Every few minutes, a reddish glow--from the flashing lights of police vehicles on constant patrol--illuminates the site of martyrdom.

Tibet is burning. Since Norbu's fiery death, eight more Tibetan clerics or former monks have set themselves on fire to protest China's repressive rule over Tibetan areas. At least six have died this year, including Norbu, a pair of teenage monks and a young nun whose charred body was seized in late October by Chinese security forces. Tibetan Buddhism is well known for the life-affirming mantras of its smiling leader, the Dalai Lama. But self-immolation is becoming a symbolic weapon of choice for young clerics still living in Tibetan regions in China.

The incendiary displays prove that a new, nihilistic desperation has descended on the Tibetan plateau. Ever since widespread protests erupted three years ago following ethnic riots, Chinese security forces have turned the Tibetan regions, which encompass Tibet proper and parts of four other Chinese provinces, into a razor-wire security zone. Thousands of Tibetans have been jailed. Clerics have been forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama. Local officials have been shepherded into propaganda classes. Parts of the plateau have been periodically closed to foreigners.

Instead of cowing Tibetans, the security onslaught has only caused local anger to metastasize. Beyond self-immolation, small-scale protests--a Free Tibet pamphlet here, a slogan supporting the Dalai Lama there--keep flaring, especially in the eastern Tibetan region known as Kham. In mid-October, Chinese security forces shot two protesting Tibetans from Kham's Kardze autonomous prefecture, where Tawu is also located. On Oct. 26, a nighttime bomb exploded at a government building in eastern Tibet. Graffiti scrawled on the building demanded Tibetan independence, and flyers scattered nearby called for the Dalai Lama's return from exile in India, where he sought refuge after a failed uprising in 1959. "We cannot stand the situation anymore," says one young monk from Kardze. "There will be more violence because the Tibetans have lost all trust in the Chinese government."

The Dalai Lama for years has tried to improve relations with Beijing by saying he wants only meaningful autonomy for Tibet, not independence. His attempt at peaceful compromise has been dubbed the "middle way." Even so, on Oct. 29, he held the Chinese government directly accountable for the self-immolations. "The local leader must look at what's the real causes of death," he said. "It's their own sort of wrong policy, ruthless policy, illogical policy." Two days later, the Chinese government's official mouthpiece, the People's Daily, compared the Dalai Lama and his flock to sect leader David Koresh and his followers who perished in the 1993 siege in Waco, Texas.

This past summer, Beijing celebrated the 60th anniversary of what it calls the "peaceful liberation of Tibet." The Chinese Communist Party's version of history goes like this: Tibetan serfs struggling under the feudal yoke of Buddhist god-kings welcomed the socialist liberators, who dramatically raised the region's living standards. The truth is more complicated. Tibet may have been poor and isolated when the People's Liberation Army began its invasion in 1950, but it was also a land whose people considered themselves essentially independent. (China says Tibet has been an inviolable part of its territory for centuries.) The Chinese government's efforts to tame the Tibetans, ranging from brutal crackdowns to economic enticements, have failed. Despite decades of so-called patriotic education, Tibetans still revere the Dalai Lama and see themselves as "completely Tibetan, not even 1% Chinese," as one Kardze resident tells me.

Over the past few years, a massive influx of Han, China's majority ethnic group, into Tibetan areas has further inflamed tensions. Tibetans complain that the best jobs and access to the region's plentiful natural resources go to Han migrants. Police officers tend to be Han, as are many bureaucrats. The highest Communist Party post in Tibet has never gone to a Tibetan. The Tibetan language is taught in some schools, but fluency in Chinese is required for government careers, and official documents are in Mandarin. "If we don't do something, our Tibetan culture will be extinguished," says a high-ranking monk at a Kardze monastery popular with Han tourists. "That is why the situation is so urgent. That's why we are trying to save our people and our nation."

Kardze, in the Kham borderlands between Han and Tibetan areas, is on the front line of this battle. All the self-immolations to date have occurred in either Kardze (known as Ganzi in Chinese) or the neighboring Ngaba (or Aba) prefecture. Despite Tibet's peaceful image, the Khampas, as people from Kham are known, were renowned for centuries as fierce warriors. In the 1950s, the CIA even trained a militia of mostly Khampa resistance fighters that numbered in the thousands. But as Sino-American relations warmed in the 1970s, Washington withdrew its financial support. The Dalai Lama sent a taped message to the guerrillas urging them to lay down their guns. Some committed suicide rather than give up their armed struggle.

More than 60 years after communist forces marched in, the high-altitude grasslands of Kardze still feel like an occupied territory. The prefectural capital's Chinese name, Kangding, can literally mean "stabilize Kham." Giant propaganda billboards loom above grazing yaks and tidy Tibetan settlements. "The police and citizens together share a common purpose to foster development," says one in Chinese, a language that many Tibetans cannot read. "Red flags across the sky," says another. "In the same boat we work together to build a peaceful environment." Police jeeps rumble across unpaved paths past Tibetan nomads with gold-capped teeth, who squint through the swirl of road dust. Monasteries I visit are staffed with plainclothes police officers, easy to distinguish with their buzz cuts and alert eyes. It's not just the thin air of a region that rises well over 13,000 ft. (4,000 m) above sea level that makes moving around here tiring. So many people, one feels, are either pretending not to watch anything or watching too carefully. The attention is exhausting.

Across Tibetan regions, owning a picture of the man Beijing calls "a wolf in monk's clothes" invites prison time. But in Kardze, I see the Dalai Lama's visage everywhere. Each monastery I go to has his picture tucked away somewhere. Maroon-clad monks pull cell phones out of their thick robes to show me snapshots of their spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama's image nestles between packets of peanuts and toilet paper in a small provisions store. A woman wells up with tears when I tell her I have been to Dharamsala, the Indian hill station where he lives.

Despite the locals' reverence, the Dalai Lama's message of nonviolence and compassion--precisely what makes the Tibetan movement so popular abroad--seems to be fraying. All the Kardze monks I ask say they understand why their fellow clerics immolated themselves, breaking Buddhist vows against the taking of life. "They did this not as individuals but for the Tibetan people," says a 20-year-old monk. "I admire their courage."

Monks on fire grab headlines. News of the ritual suicides has traveled fast through Tibetan regions, even as the Chinese government has severed Internet connections and suspended text-messaging services in certain areas. But when talking with young, rosy-cheeked monks in Kardze, in their dormitory rooms with posters of the Dalai Lama next to those of NBA stars, it is easy to feel the futility of the immolations. The Khampas may have once been proud warriors, yet they are hardly a fighting force now. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, ran a story last month about weapons being smuggled from Burma to Tibetan separatists. But rusty guns from a third-world backwater can hardly compete with the technological might of the People's Liberation Army. Those who note that a street vendor's self-immolation catalyzed a revolution in Tunisia must also accept that the Han majority's sympathies do not lie with the Tibetans. The Han have their own frustrations with the ruling Communist Party. The treatment of Tibetans is not one of them.

I talk to a half-han, half-Tibetan government official who grew up in Tawu. He is friendly and polite--and he wants me to know the real situation in his hometown. The Tibetans, he says, are greedy. The government gives them everything from preferential loans to new infrastructure, but still they want more. The Tibetan plateau's lunar landscape is littered with clusters of houses the Chinese government built for nomads. Yet like some American real estate developments abandoned during the subprime-mortgage crisis, many of these houses in Kardze are empty. Few Tibetan nomads want to live in Chinese houses. The government worker does not understand it. They are nice houses, he says, much warmer in winter than a yak-wool tent. "If we were to give the Tibetans independence," he says, "they would starve and have no clothes on their back."

Unlike many Chinese communist bureaucrats who merely mouth the appropriate ideology, the Tawu cadre explains his position with conviction. The Dalai Lama and his sister, who escaped to India with him, are the ones orchestrating all the strife, he says, his voice rising in anger. "When the Dalai Lama dies," he tells me, "all of China's problems with the Tibetans will go away. Younger Tibetans are being educated in the proper way, so they won't cause much trouble."

But from everything I've seen, the opposite is true. First, it is young Tibetans who are sacrificing their lives, even though their schooling is steeped in pro-Chinese propaganda. Second, even among the large community of Tibetans in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile, an intense debate is raging over whether the spiritual leader's middle way of nonviolent negotiation with Beijing has done more harm than good. The Dalai Lama is more moderate than many Tibetans, who believe Beijing is unwilling to offer any meaningful concessions. In the Kham highlands, passions are rising with every monk who bursts into flames.

When I visited Dharamsala recently, I met Tsewang Dhondup, a trader from Kardze who fled his homeland after the 2008 unrest. That year, riots between Tibetans and Han led to deaths on both sides. The Chinese military's reaction to further rallies by Tibetans left some 150 dead, according to exile estimates. Dhondup was shot while trying to help a monk who later died of bullet wounds. wanted signs with Dhondup's picture were posted in his village, but friends took him by stretcher high into the mountains. Maggots infested his wounds. Dhondup lived for 14 months on the edge of a glacier before escaping to India. His audience with the Dalai Lama, he says, was the most treasured moment of his life. But even he predicts that "once the Dalai Lama is gone, Tibet will explode."

Even now, the Tibetan monks' refusal to disavow their exiled leader has played a role in sparking this wave of conflict. Tsewang Norbu, the monk who set himself on fire in Tawu, lived in the Nyitso monastery, which was prevented from celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday in July. In previous years, locals say, monks could quietly mark the moment without official intervention. But this year was different. For the monks' disobedience, government officials cut Nyitso's water and electricity. The siege went on for weeks before Norbu emerged from the monastery and walked down the hill to the center of town. For a few minutes, he passed out pamphlets advocating Tibetan independence and celebrating the Dalai Lama. Then out came the kerosene.

It is dark when I drive by the Nyitso monastery. Security cameras are everywhere, as are police vehicles and plainclothes agents. The bulk of the monastery looms behind a wall, and I cannot see anything of interest, certainly not any monks. Many have been removed and sent to re-education camps, according to locals and exile groups, just as in the Kirti monastery in Ngaba, which has produced seven monks or former clerics who have self-immolated. The Tawu government worker says some of the remaining monks in Nyitso are spies who have been deployed to monitor the others. All is gray and shadowy. But I finally see something bright against a wall just inside the monastery. It is not, as I had hoped, a monk in maroon robes. Instead, it is a fire extinguisher, shiny and red and new.

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