By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India – In addition to regular demonstrations, self-immolation is increasingly becoming a way for Tibetan monks inside China to show their faith in and support of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and their frustration over Beijing’s intensified suppression of religious freedom and denouncement of their spiritual leader.
An escalating verbal battle between Beijing and the Dalai Lama over the latter’s reincarnation seems to have intensified protests and prompted more attempted suicides by Tibetan monks to show support of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.
In the past two weeks alone, at least three Tibetan monks from the Kirti monastery in Aba (Ngaba) prefecture in western Sichuan province near the Tibetan border, have set themselves on fire to protest against Beijing’s Tibet policy, according to London-based Free Tibet.
The latest case of immolation happened on October 3, when a
young monk believed to be 17 or 18 years old from the monastery set himself alight near the vegetable market in Aba city. He was reportedly holding a photograph of the Dalai Lama and shouted: “There are no religious rights and freedoms in Tibet!” The police put out the fire and took him away. This is the fifth such self-immolation incident this year.
A week earlier, on September 26, two young monks, Lobsang Kalsang and Lobsang Konchok aged between 18 and 19 years old, also from Kirti monastery, self-immolated. The monks waved the banned Tibetan flag and called for religious freedom and “Long live the Dalai Lama” before they set themselves on fire.
Lobsang Kelsang is the brother of Phuntsog, a 21-year-old monk also from Kirti monastery, a site of frequent unrest in the past three years, who died after setting himself on fire in March.
China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency also reported the September 26 incident, however, it said the two monks were rescued by police shortly after they set fire on themselves and they were given prompt medical treatment. “The suicide attempt is under further investigation,” Xinhua said.
Besides such suicide attempts, there are also reports about Tibetan protests. According to a report on the website of Radio Free Asia, hundreds of Tibetans staged a protest at the county seat of Seda (Serta) in Ganzi (Kardze) prefecture of Sichuan on China’s National Day of October 1.
The protest was triggered by the authorities’ removal of a portrait of the Dalai Lama and a huge Tibetan national flag from a building and throwing them on the street. The protesters were reported to have shouted slogans calling for the Dalai Lama’s return and freedom for Tibetans.
The latest self-immolations and protest by Tibetans inside China happened when Beijing and the Dalai Lama were escalating their verbal war over the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. Analysts believe the intensified row has increased frustration among religious Tibetans that Beijing will enforce on them a new Dalai Lama of its choice when the current spiritual leader passes away.
On September 24, the Dalai Lama released a statement on his reincarnation saying he would consult Buddhist scholars when he reached the age of “about 90” to evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue, reiterating that the Chinese government has no role whatsoever to play in this matter.
“I shall leave clearly written instructions about this,” he said. “Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China.”
But Beijing stands firm that the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation needs to be endorsed by the central government of China. Two days after the Dalai Lama’s statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Dalai Lamas had never decided on their own reincarnations, accusing the current Dalai Lama of “distorting and denying” history.
“I would like to point out the title of the Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government and is otherwise illegal. The [current] 14th Dalai Lama was approved by the then republican government,” Hong said. “There has never been a practice of a living Dalai Lama identifying his own successor.”
Tibetan monks both inside and outside Tibet still regard every word of the Dalai Lama as sacred, their God-King, despite the fact that he lives in exile.
Despite Beijing’s massive economic buildup in infrastructure and increased living standards of Tibetans, its iconoclastic views and hardline policies on culture and religion towards the ethnic minorities remain a challenge. The riots on March 2008 inside Tibet, as well as incessant unrest in Xinjiang in its far west, remind of problematic human-rights situation in China.
In some experts’ view, Tibetans inside Tibet are very much aware of the geopolitics that surrounds the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation and some radical religious believers are willing to take extremes to draw the world’s attention to the situation.
“It is tragic that a fifth monk has set fire to himself in Tibet this year … A growing number of Tibetans clearly feel that this is the only way that they can be heard,” Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said in the statement.
Dr Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of International Relations from the London’s University of Westminster in an e-mail to Asia Times Online said, “There is a continuing cycle of repression and protests in Tibetan regions in China since 2008, most of it outside the purview of media.
The self-immolations should be seen in that context. Monks are aware of the politics the government is playing over the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama and the danger that the same politics will take place over the next Dalai Lama. This realization is part of the picture. But the most important factor here is not the Dalai Lama and his statements but the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet, which allows for no room for accommodation with the most fundamental of Tibetan aspirations to be able to worship their main religious figure.”
Suicide is strictly prohibited according to Tibetan Buddhist principles. Nonetheless, after Beijing tightened regulations on Tibetan monasteries after the 2008 unrest in Tibet, self-immolation began to emerge as a new form of protest or sacrifice in Tibet. The first known self-immolation occurred in the exiled Tibetan community on April 27, 1998, when Thupten Ngodup, an exiled Tibetan, set fire to himself during a hunger strike in New Delhi.
This year alone at least five Tibetan monks have attempted self-immolation. The first was Phuntsok from Kirti monastery, who set himself ablaze on March 16 to mark the third anniversary of a bloody crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators there. Phuntsok was seized, allegedly beaten by the police and died the next day. The second incident happened on August 15 when 29-year-old monk Tsewang Norbu of Nyitso Monastery in Tawu, Ganzi self-immolated himself demanding freedom in Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.
Executive director Urgen Tenzin of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights & Democracy (TCHRD), an exile Tibetan human rights group, told Asia Times Online that “the monks gets frustrated and are compelled to do such acts because of the policies of the Chinese government. After the 2008 protests the Chinese government has continued their suppression specifically in Tibetan monasteries.
“It is very much evident to the world what is happening inside Tibet. The PRC [People’s Republic of China] conducts a ‘patriotic re-education’ campaign where the monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and their own gurus. Clearly the Communist Party wants them to follow the communist ideology, which is against the Buddhist principles. The latest self-immolation act could be one reason because of the verbal row on the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation issue.”
Exiled Tibetans here are protesting against China over the latest self-immolation cases, sitting hunger strikes and candle-lit vigils, appealing to the world to pressure China to take steps to improve the human-rights situation inside Tibet.
The Tibetan government in exile in an immediate statement after reports of the September 26 self-immolation incident said:
The Kashag of the Central Tibetan Administration is deeply saddened by the latest development in Tibet involving two monks setting themselves on fire. The Kashag conveys its heartfelt condolences and prayers to the family members of both individuals. The Central Tibetan Administration calls upon the Chinese authorities to immediately address the grievances of the Tibetan people and resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully.
A number of countries and international rights groups too have shown deep concerns over the incident and have objected to Beijing’s policies over Tibet. Their statements express their support to the Tibetan exiles.
Kristina Ojuland MEP, a former Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister said in a statement:
Such a radical form of protest illustrates the despair of the Tibetans, who are seeking freedom of religion as well as meaningful autonomy in the historic area of Tibet. Continuous desperate acts of protest also demonstrate that the Tibetans determinedly resist the ongoing violations of human rights and the cultural genocide that is being carried out in Tibet. Therefore, the European Union and its Member states too cannot remain silent and must address the situation of human rights in Tibet more rigorously with the PRC.
The United States State Department too has urged China to respect the rights of Tibetans and address their grievances, in a statement it said:
In light of the continuing underlying grievances of China’s Tibetan population, we again urge Chinese leaders to respect the rights of Tibetans, to address policies in Tibetan areas that have created tension, and to protect Tibetans’ unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity. We continue to urge the Chinese government to allow access to Tibetan areas of China for both journalists and diplomats.
Beijing quickly rebuked the statement, “We oppose any country or any person using Tibet-related issues to interfere in China’s internal affairs and impair China’s social stability and ethnic unity,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told journalists. “The Chinese government protects the lawful rights and interests of ethnic minorities,” he said.
Leading experts on Tibet suggest the situation inside Tibet is not what Beijing portrays to the world, with imposed monastic laws making monks uncomfortable. However, the self-immolations are a clear messages to Beijing.
Associate professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University, tells Asia Times Online:
The current instances of self-immolation by Tibetan monks in protest to Chinese policies have raised serious concerns, inside China and outside, that this particular form of protest will not end here. It is no longer possible for China to shroud such actions in secrecy in spite of attempts to impose a news blackout. Moreover, as a powerful form of political protest by Buddhist monks, self-immolation has a decades-old history going back to protests in [South] Vietnam in the early 1960s.
Dr Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of International Relations says:
Self-immolation of monks reflects a deep dissatisfaction amongst the Tibetans inside China. At the same time this desperate act is also one of hope, a hope that such sacrifices will mobilize more Tibetans; bring international attention and hopefully more international pressure on China to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of Tibetans. That the monks are at the forefront of this should not be a surprise since they have borne the brunt of all kinds of pressures from the government to be patriotically re-educated.
However, this form of protest is dangerous for Tibetans too. If such acts are represented as the highest form of sacrifice one can make for the cause of Tibet and individuals are extolled as true patriots, we should not be surprised that more and more Tibetans will follow suit. Self-immolation is not non-violent for it is violence against one-self. And once violence of any kind enters a struggle, it raises the cost of protest, brutalizes people and even makes it easier for the state to act with far greater violence. It is one thing for the exiled Tibetans to mobilize awareness campaigns around these acts, and it is another to venerate them as legitimate sacrifice for the danger here is of more copycat self-immolations.
Saransh Sehgal is a contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at email@example.com.
- Two Tibetan Monks Set Themselves on Fire in Protest (New York Times) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)
- China tells Dalai Lama to respect reincarnation (Reuters) (thuytinhvo.wordpress.com)