Self-Immolations in Tibet


Tibetan exile Jamyang Norbu wrote in March 2009 that "the one prediction we can make with any confidence about the future of Tibet is that there will be more uprisings."

He was writing a almost a year on from the outbreak of the 2008 Tibetan Uprising, an event referred to in China as 3/14. The crackdown that followed the uprising seemed to have made political opposition in Tibet virtually impossible. But there had already been a hint of the way that Tibetans might try to deal with the situation.

On 27 February a 20 year old monk called Tapey, from Kirti Monastery in Ngaba Prefecture in eastern Tibet, set light to his petrol-soaked robes. He held up a Tibetan flag and a photograph of the Dalai Lama, and then he was shot down by police. He was taken to hospital and was apparently last heard of in 2011 in the military hospital of Barkam, capital of Ngaba Prefecture. His current circumstances are unknown.

Tapey was probably the first person to carry out such an act in Tibet, though not the first Tibetan to do so. Thupten Ngodup set fire to himself in Delhi in 1998, immediately after the arrest by Delhi police of three Tibetan hunger strikers. He died the following day.

On March 16 2011, Phuntsog, another young monk from Kirti Monastery, set fire to himself. He died from his injuries the following day.

30 self-immolations by 16 March

A total of 30 people – monks, nuns and lay people – have so far (16 March 2011) protested in the same way in Tibet. Seven acts of self-immolation have been reported this month. Details of all the self-immolations can be found on the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy website.

19 year-old student Tsering Kyi set fire to herself in Machu town in Kanlho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture on 3 March. She died on the spot. Rinchen, a 32 year-old mother of four, died after setting fire to herself outside Kirti Monastery on 4 March. 18-yr-old Dorjee set himself on fire at in Cha Township in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture on 5 March. On 10 March Gyepe, an 18-yr-old monk, self-immolated behind a Chinese military camp in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and died on the spot.

On 14 March, Jamyang Palden, a monk in his thirties, set fire to himself at Rongbo Gonchen Monastery in Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Jamyang's action coincided with the anniversary of the outbreak of the 2008 Uprising. He was taken to hospital and then taken back to his monastery in order to protect him from the likelihood of arrest and ill-treatment by the Chinese authorities. Hundreds of monks and lay people gathered in solidarity. Jamyang's medical condition is said to be serious.

On 16 March Sonam Dhargye, a farmer aged 43, burnt himself to death near the vegetable market in Rongpo town. Large numbers of monks and lay people gathered afterwards for prayers.

On the same day Lobsang Tsultrim, a 20-year-old monk from Kirti monastery, set himself on fire in Ngaba town in eastern Tibet. The fire was extinguished by security personnel and he was taken away in a police vehicle.

All of the self-immolations were political protests, though the family of at least one protester has been put under pressure to say otherwise. All would have instantly been understood to be political by everyone who saw them. It's hardly right to call these actions suicides since their primary purpose isn't to seek death, but to engage with others for a political purpose.

The protests haven't received the media attention that might be expected. For that matter, neither has the hunger strike by three Tibetans outside the UN headquarters, despite visits from Richard Gere and UN Assistant Secretary General Ivan Simonovic.

Perhaps journalists are staying quiet for humanitarian reasons. Perhaps they fear that publicity will only encourage more self-immolations. Perhaps they don't want that responsibility. What kind of humanitarianism allows media professionals to say "sorry, no story here" to people who have chosen agony and death in preference to silence? Isn't it odd that this humanitarianism coincides so neatly with the political needs of the Chinese Government? And for that matter with the interests of governments and businesses that are hungry for access to Chinese capital and Chinese markets?

Why self-immolation? There are other ways that Tibetans could protest. They could stand in the street chanting slogans and handing out leaflets. They could hold meetings. They could send articles to the newspapers. But if they did any of these things they would be jailed, and probably beaten, and very likely tortured in other ways. Unless they were shot first, that is.

Protestors shot

The discovery last December of leaflets scattered around Sog Tsenden Monastery calling for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet and for the restoration of freedom in Tibet led to an investigation by the local Public Security Bureau. Kelsang Tsultrim, a monk who had become a target of suspicion, disappeared in mid-January and is thought to be in secret detention. Four other monks from the monastery were arrested on 15 January. The monastery is in the northern part of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

On 23 January security personnel opened fire on protesters in Drango County in Kandze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, eastern Tibet. At least one person was shot dead and many others were injured. Two more people were killed, and about ten injured, when security forces fired on protesters in Serta county, Kandze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, on the following day. Two bothers who went into hiding after participating in the Drango protest were shot dead by security forces in February.

On 26 January security forces in Dzamtang County, Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture opened fire on people protesting against the arrest of a man for pasting a leaflet stating that the reason for the self-immolation protests was the demand for freedom in Tibet and for the return of the Dalai Lama. One person was killed and several wounded.

There are frequent reports of beatings, arrests and the expulsion of monks from monasteries right across the Tibetan ethno-cultural region. Lobsang Sangay, head (Kalon Tripa) of the Tibetan exile administration in Dharamshala, has described the current situation as "undeclared martial law."

For the moment, some Tibetans are choosing to take their torture briefly, intensely, publicly and by fire instead of slowly behind closed doors. Their call, maybe?

A lot of people find it hard to know how to respond to acts of self-immolation. That's as it should be. Any decent response has to begin and end with solidarity. In the middle there ought to be some space for suggestions. Not from me, but from people who know something about how to live in Tibet.

To avoid being destroyed, our only choice is to destroy this silence

Tsering Woeser is a Tibetan poet and blogger. She was born in Lhasa. She grew up in Karze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in eastern Tibet. Her husband is Han Chinese. Her home is in Beijing. Also her prison, since she has from time to time been put under house arrest. She writes in Chinese. Her words are a smouldering robe that could at any moment burn her.

When Tapey's self-immolation – the first in Tibet – seemed at risk of being overlooked by the Tibetan exile administration in Dharamshala, Woeser campaigned for Tapey's recognition. Earlier this month she recalled the words of Sobha Rinpoche, who died after setting fire to himself on 8 January. He said:

"I am sacrificing my body – just as the Buddha bravely fed his body to a hungry tigress. As I am doing, other Tibetan heroes have sacrificed their lives for the same cause of truth and freedom."

But Woeser went to say, in the same article:

"Chances to change our reality depend on us staying alive to struggle and to push forward; staying alive allows us to gather strength as drops of water to form a great ocean."

It was, in fact, an appeal to Tibetans to cease self-immolation, signed initially by Woeser (blogging from house arrest), Arjia Lobsang Tupten (Arjia Rinpoche, USA) and Gade Tsering (poet, Amdo), and subsequently by many others. Since then, Woeser has continued to use her Invisible Tibet Blog to give recognition to the continuing self-immolations, to demand an end to the silence of Chinese people over the self-immolations and the Chinese repression in Tibet, and to appeal to Tibetans for the self-immolations to cease.

The self-immolations of Jamyang Palden and Sonam Dhargye in Rongbo last week were followed by large solidarity gatherings. Even in China and Tibet there is sometimes safety in numbers. Beyond safety, there is creativity. And so there is hope.

There will be even more hope if people around the world pay more attention to what is happening in Tibet.

"To avoid being destroyed, our only choice is to destroy this silence." - Fire on the Mountain, by Woesar


Out of proportion

I feel the critic tawords Dibyesh is somewhat out of proportion now. Firstly it is important to respect everyone who practices freedom in thought and expression. I tis important to consider every opinion, no matter from which angle it is viewed, but mainly when the opinion is from somebody who sincerely cares for Tibet, who beside that also is a bright person who has proved in other articles his strong support for our cause and his admiration for HHt Dalai Lama. We should not get too touchy when friends with critical mind dare to express them self. It is a constructive critic.I know Dibyesh good enough, to say, he does not intend to be disrespectful tawords anyone. This really is a misunderstanding.While I'm fully understanding the self immolations and why we Tibetans reached this painfully and lonely state, where our people back in Tibet have to do such violent acts,.. I wish strongly and I pray daily that it would stop now.Yes I also wish that HHt Dalai Lama could do something that not one more Tibetan does indulge himself and his family such horrible suffering.I'm full of admiration of the determination and courage of our Pawos and I see that it does move now the world a little. Mainly it did wake up us Tibetans worldwide, But human lives are ended in a horrible and irreversible way. We can't ignore that and just look at the heroic deed.No one with a Buddhist mind can wish that any one dies that way. We can not hope that self immolations go on till the situation of Tibet changes for better.People like Dibyesh, who are not Tibetans and are true friends of Tibet, have the right to question, they even should contribute their opinions from outside it forces us to think further and to analyze our steps May be to stand up even more firmly behind the self immolation victims.I know that every Tibetan has full understanding and full respect but many Tibetans wish and prays that it stops because we need our bravest people alive.Tibet will be free and we need their help for the fight.I've seen Hu Jintao visiting Austria and I saw how little Austria reported about the self immolations, even we sent them intensively all informations.Austria is small but the proportion of the reactions worldwide is about that.To change Chinas Tibet Policy and to stop the agony of the Tibetan people, we have to start an intensive campaign to inform the average civil worldwide about Chinas world policy, about corruption of UN and their own governments dirty business with China.I ask Dibyesh, to research on that and to write an article about these subjects, if he really cares that these self immolations stop.All of us we have to work on that. Highlight Chinas dirty business with the world, to convince the world population that China is a big danger not only to Tibet but also to them self. Look back on history. People get up and revolt, when they do not agree with their leaders any more. Lets show to the western average population, what the governments tries to hide. Lets not be just critical and disrespectful tawords intelligent supporters like Dibyesh Anand. Lets show them where we need them most.I prefere friends who provocate me and force me to think and to react , then friends acting like my shadow.Bhod GyaloTseten Zf6chbauer

Keep it honest

The profile link for the poster "Eray" has been deleted, since it appears not to be genuine. Keep it honest, please!

Change and radicalism

The comment by "Eray" appears to be a re-post of a comment posted by Tseten Zöchbauer on 8 November 2011 on the Lhakar Diaries website at

The various other comments posted on that page are well worth reading. I don't know why the present poster, using the name Eray, has chosen to re-post without acknowledgement to Tseten Zöchbauer, but the issue is important enough to warrant a response.

Tseten Zöchbauer was originally reacting to a Guardian: Comment is free piece, at

Zee News published an interview with Dibyesh Anand on 2 12 2012 at

Dr Dibyesh Anand is Associate Professor of International Relations at London's Westminster University and the author of 'Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics'.

Tseten Zöchbauer, responding to criticism of Dr Anand on the Lhakar Diaries site (and re-posted above by "Eray" )wrote: "People like Dibyesh, who are not Tibetans and are true friends of Tibet, have the right to question" Yes, I agree. Dibyesh Anand deserves respect. Questioning and discussion are part of the way forward.

Change in Tibet requires an understanding of the social and political dynamics at work there. Dr Anand used his Zee News interview to give the wider world a nuanced and realistic view of those dynamics. That's good. But I think Dr Anand's outlook is a rather limited and conservative one

Dr Anand's conclusion is that self-immolations won't trigger a China Spring. Perhaps not. But it would be better if it did. One way to make that outcome less likely is to declare to an international audience that it won't happen. So I think Dr Anand's comments were unhelpful.

Dr Anand siad in his Zee News interview:

"There are Tibetans in different parts of China who work tirelessly to make the system more equitable and just. They do not challenge China, but seek to bring a genuine harmony between Tibetans and other ethnic groups, a harmony based on dignity and not paternalism of the majority. Their focus is on incremental change. Therefore, this radical form of protest using self-immolation is neither inevitable nor desirable."

It sounds very much as if Dr Anand would disapprove of any form of radical protest, not just self-immolation. Exactly how are Tibetans supposed to overturn 60 years of colonial oppression without being radical and without challenging China?

I don't think that Tibetans can gain freedom incrementally. Real improvement won't happen without a sea-change in China and Tibet. For the moment, it's impossible to guess how exactly how that will come about. The only sure thing is that it won't happen unless a spirit of resistance remains alive in Tibet. People inside Tibet, and their friends and supporters around the world, have a right and a duty, just as Tseten Zöchbauer says, to think critically about everything that happens. Just so long as they remember that what's needed is change -real change - and that the people who deserve most support are the people trying to shake things up.

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