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Tibet Burning: The Politics of Self Immolations

April 3, 2012

[Sunday, April 01, 2012 19:19]
By Topden Tsering

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 Gyaltse 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 Tapay 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 Tapay, 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 had only helped draw the circle full.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the
publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect
their endorsement by the website
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