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