I am walking thus on the path of light, to become the living proof of truth
I am sacrificing myself thus on the face of actuality
All my brothers and sisters, young and old, living in misery and sorrow
All people throughout the world who love freedom and peace
And to you, tyrants of violence, oppression and torture
What I want is lasting peace and freedom
What I am searching for is an existence of equality and caring
Until I accomplish this
I will burn myself again and again.
—Excerpt from “I Will Burn Myself Again and Again,” by exiled Tibetan poet Sungshik Kyi
The issue then, is not to resolve but to reveal the conflict. The spur of resentment which Amery conveys to us in his polemic demands recognition of the right to resentment, entailing no less than a programmatic attempt to sensitize the consciousness of a people “already rehabilitated by time.”
—W.G. Sebald, Against the Irreversible: On Jean Amery
On February 27, 2009, a young monk named Tapey stepped onto a street in the town of Ngaba in eastern Tibet and set himself on fire. Video footage of the event, subsequently smuggled out of the country, shows a burgundy-robed monk, arms spread wide, walking in a swaying motion past a police car, flames licking his upper body. He is holding a photo of the Dalai Lama in one hand and the banned Tibetan national flag in the other. A fire extinguisher is sprayed out of the squad car and smothers Tapey’s flames. He runs in a cloud of smoke and the video stops abruptly. Eyewitness accounts state that Tapey was then shot several times by police before being taken away. His fate remained unknown for years but it has now transpired that he survived his injuries.
Tapey’s was not the first self-immolation attempt by a Tibetan—Thupten Ngodup, a Tibetan exile, had set himself on fire at a political protest in New Delhi on April 27, 1998 and succumbed to his injuries—but his was the first inside the country and marked a landmark moment in Tibet’s six-decade struggle for freedom from Chinese rule.
Two years after Tapey’s action, on March 16, 2011, another monk, twenty-year-old Lobsang Phuntsok, set himself alight in public and died on the spot. His death set off a chain of self-immolations that raged like wildfire across the Tibetan plateau. To date, an estimated 146 Tibetans have burnt themselves inside Tibet, of which an estimated 118 have died. A further eight Tibetans have self-immolated in exile. The majority were monks, but they were soon joined by nuns, farmers, nomads, teachers, students, fathers, and mothers. They were united in a common demand—the return of the Dalai Lama and freedom for Tibet—that they either shouted out as they were burning, or wrote or recorded in their last testaments.
This unprecedented form of protest was initially captured on citizen videos and smuggled abroad (these became more infrequent as harsh penalties were introduced to punish those taking and circulating such images). The videos graphically brought home the full horror of a living human body being consumed by flames: the blurred outline of a figure engulfed in flames, the slow-motion collapse followed by the agonizing contortion of twitching limbs that can only hint at the unimaginable pain being endured, and then the charred remains in grisly rigor mortis, all pretence of humanity stripped bare. Why would anyone do this? And was any cause worth the sacrifice of a life being offered in this most gruesome of ways?
The spate of self-immolations and their explicit visual representation shocked exile Tibetans like me into reappraising the situation in Tibet. Numbed by a lifetime of estrangement from our homeland, they dramatically alerted us to the sheer magnitude of the problems our fellow countrymen and women were facing. They made us question the impotence of our own contributions to our freedom struggle. And on another level they sparked soul-searching and impassioned debate about the legitimacy and ethical correctness of self-immolations as a nonviolent weapon of protest.
To understand why Tibetans were pushed into resorting to such a self-brutalizing form of protest, we have to return to the root causes of the Tibetan issue. In 1913, the thirteenth Dalai Lama declared Tibet to be an independent country. Whatever the historical interpretation of Tibet’s status prior to this proclamation—and Tibetan and Chinese historians are sharply divided on the issue—the fact remains that from this moment on until its invasion and occupation in 1950, Tibet fulfilled most definitions of a modern nation state. It had a fully functioning government, a civil service, judicial and taxation systems, and its own army, postal service, and currency. It even issued its own passports, which were recognized by major Western countries. Additionally, it had its own unique civilization built around Tibetan Buddhism, which had spread far beyond its borders, its own language, a long cultural and literary tradition, and a way of life that had evolved in harmony with its high-altitude environment.
China’s violation of this sovereignty and its subsequent colonization of the country set into motion a concatenation of events that led directly to the present wave of self-immolations. These dramatic protests are symptomatic both of the increasingly oppressive situation inside Tibet, where every form of dissent has been methodically and violently shut down, and the perseverance of the Tibetan people who, after more than five decades of Chinese imperialism, remain more determined than ever to challenge it. In a postcolonial world, Tibet is one of the last remaining colonies. Over the years of its occupation, China has consistently and systematically marginalized Tibetans and reduced them to second-class citizens, contributing to the sense that the very soul of their identity was being irrevocably effaced.
Waves of Han migrants from the mainland have transformed Tibetan cities and towns into replicas of Chinese urban centers and altered their demographic makeup. The practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the beating heart of Tibet’s culture, has been singled out as a threat to Chinese rule and subjected to draconian controls and regulations. The deliberate sidelining of the Tibetan language has left Tibetans with no choice but to study and adopt Mandarin in their daily lives. Tibet’s substantial nomadic population, the custodians of its high grasslands, has been forced to give up herding and resettle in concrete housing blocks; the justification for this, ironically, is to protect the fragile environment. Tibet’s resources are being rampantly exploited and shipped back to the mainland. At the same time, Tibet has become a repressive police state with a huge security apparatus, an insidious network of informers and spies, and oppressive policies that do not apply to the rest of China. Add to this the ignominy of having to denounce the Dalai Lama, who most Tibetans believe is the embodiment of the Buddha of Compassion, the mere possession of whose photographs is an imprisonable offense, and it is not difficult to understand the boiling point that Tibetans have reached.
This pent-up discontent exploded briefly in March 2008, when large-scale demonstrations broke out in Lhasa. The significance of their timing was not lost on us. Not only was Tibet approaching the landmark fifty years of Chinese occupation but China was preparing to make its grand debut on the international stage later that year by hosting the Olympics. Before we knew it, the protests spread across the Tibetan plateau, far beyond the borders of what China designates as the Tibet Autonomous Region and into the traditional Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo, which had long been incorporated into Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai provinces. This was the largest uprising against Chinese rule since 1959 and it took everyone by surprise.
In exile, the protests galvanized us into action. For a few heady weeks, Tibet ruled the international headlines and flashed across everybody’s TV screens. Thousands of Tibetans and their supporters marched on the streets of the world’s cities. For a brief moment, as protesters disrupted China’s Olympic torch relay in Paris and London, and Tibetans rose up in the furthest corners of the country, it seemed that Tibet’s tragedy was finally being exposed to the world and that Beijing was losing control of the situation. But this proved illusory. By the time the Olympics came around, order, as far as China was concerned, was restored. The uprising was brutally quelled and Tibet was out of bounds for all international travelers, including the media. In the aftermath of the triumphant Beijing Games, China’s full wrath was unleashed on the restive land. This time, the world was not there to witness it. Thousands were arrested, including poets, writers, and musicians, for their part in the protests. New laws were put into place, further limiting the rights of Tibetan people, including their freedom to travel within Tibet.
On the issue of travel restrictions for Tibetans, the Beijing-based Tibetan poet and blogger Tsering Woeser, a trenchant critic of China’s policies in Tibet, wrote in her book, Tibet on Fire:
The refusal of entry of Tibetans to the city of Lhasa, a holy city in Tibetan Buddhism, is an unprecedented act since the city’s founding in the seventh century. And although the policy has been thoroughly and rigidly implemented, most people still remain unaware of it. Who, after all, could believe that a Tibetan would have to receive authorization from the Chinese Public Security Bureau in order to return home? Who could believe that you need to get a letter of guarantee from the Chinese police in order to make a pilgrimage to your holy land? Even many Tibetans, the targets of this policy, have a hard time believing that they might never again have a chance to see the Jowo Rinpoche, a rendering of the Shakyamuni Buddha in the Jokhang Temple, revered as the most sacred statue in Tibet. But whether they believe it or not, once they encounter their first inspection point at an airport or railway station, or along one of those long, empty highways, they will be stopped and told to return to their homes without even a second thought. Should they dare to disobey these orders, an armed member of the special police will take them away, and they might never be heard from again. This is the tragic reality of Tibet today.
But undoubtedly the most tragic aspect of this entire affair is the fact that, so long as they are not Tibetan, Chinese citizens can visit Lhasa freely with just one document: their identification card. They can come on planes, on trains, in their cars—even on bicycles or by foot. They can wander freely through this holy land covered in garrisons and inspection points as if it was some kind of heavily fortified amusement park built solely for their pleasure. Today the devout believers who once made their pilgrimage to the holy city have been replaced by thousands of Chinese cyclists who freely and joyfully cycle towards the next designated tourist destination. Tibetans, watched over carefully at gunpoint, have already become a minority in Lhasa. All types of Han from all over China—from tourists to merchants to migrant workers—have flooded the city, from the main streets through to its winding alleyways. And they all seem to be bursting with joy, making a racket, and acting with a marked self-assurance, as if they know they are the masters of this land. And indeed, their relationship with the military police who hold the local people at gunpoint displays a disconcerting degree of comfort—even, one might say, camaraderie.
We all tend to think of racial apartheid as a thing of the past. We like to believe that it ended seventy years ago with the downfall of the Nazis or, at the most, twenty years ago with the democratic transition in South Africa. No one would think that this type of apartheid could still be happening today, in the twenty-first century.11Tsering Woeser, Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolations Against Chinese Rule, trans. Kevin Carrico (London and New York: Verso, 2016), 75–77.
While we can contextualize and attempt to understand the circumstances that gave rise to the wave of self-immolations in Tibet, many, including Tibetans themselves, have condemned the tactic as being a form of violence against oneself and therefore counter to the teachings of the Buddha.
When the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc set himself alight on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963—the first documented political self-immolation in modern times—the photograph of the incident quickly became an iconic and enduring image of struggle and resistance. But the graphic representation of a serene Buddhist monk sitting cross-legged in a blaze of fire also raised many ethical questions. Martin Luther King Jr. was one who expressed his disquietude. In response, the Vietnamese monk and Buddhist teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, wrote him a much-publicized letter. He explained:
The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, say with all his strengh [sic] and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.22Thich Nhat Nanh, “In Search of the Enemy of Man (addressed to the Rev. Martin Luther King),” in Nhat Nanh, Ho Huu Tuong, Tam Ich, Bui Giang, and Pham Cong Thien, Dialogue (Saigon: La Boi, 1965),11.
That many of the Tibetan self-immolators shared this same sense of altruism and hope in their actions is clear from the last messages that many of them left behind. Lama Sobha, a high-ranking Buddhist monk, who self-immolated on January 8, 2012, recorded an audio message in which he said:
This is the twenty-first century, and this is the year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died. I am sacrificing my body both to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood, and to seek repentance through this highest tantric honour of offering one’s body. This is not to seek personal fame or glory. I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them—each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet by ignorance has been led to commit immoral acts—to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light.33Quoted in: International Campaign for Tibet, Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese policy (Washington, DC, Amsterdam, Berlin, London, and Brussels, December 2012), 110.
Similarly, Tsultrim Gyatso, who burnt himself on December 19, 2013, wrote in his final testament:
The immolation of one’s precious body was for the return of Gyalwang Tenzin Gyatso [the Dalai Lama] to his homeland; for the release of the Panchen Nangwa Thaye [The Panchen Lama] from prison; for the welfare of the six million Tibetans. My body has been offered to the fire for these. By the grace of these, the prayer is for all the sentient beings of the three realms to escape from the three poisons and proceed on the path of enlightenment.44Quoted in: “Monks gather to pray after self-immolation of respected Tibetan monk in Amchok,” International Campaign for Tibet website, December 20, 2013, https://www.savetibet.org/monks-gather-to-pray-after-self-immolation-of-respected-tibetan-monk-in-amchok.
Eighteen-year-old Nangdrol, who set himself alight on February 19, 2012, wrote:
Head raised high with indefatigable loyalty and courage,
I, Nangdrol, call on
My grateful parents, brothers and relatives,
For the cause of grateful Tibetan people,
By giving up my life to fire,
Men and women of Tibet,
I hope you all will keep unity and harmony;
Wear Tibetan [dress] if you are Tibetan;
Moreover, you must speak Tibetan;
Never forget you are Tibetan;
You must have love and compassion if you are Tibetan;
Have respect for parents;
Have unity and harmony amongst Tibetan;
Be compassionate to animals;
Restrain from taking lives of living beings.55Quoted in: International Campaign for Tibet, Storm in the Grasslands, 124–25.
Most of the letters left behind by the self-immolators stress this conviction that their action is for the larger benefit of their people and country. As Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes, the act of self-immolation is not an act of destruction, but one of construction, in that it sends out a message of defiance and solidarity in the face of overwhelming despair. On this matter, Woeser is very clear:
In my interviews with international media on the topic of self-immolation, I have always tried to emphasize one area of frequent misunderstanding: self-immolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, self-immolation is sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change…Such an act is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results. Each and every one of these roaring flames on the Tibetan plateau has been ignited by ethnic oppression. Each is a torch casting light on a land trapped in darkness. These flames are a continuation of the protests of 2008 and a continuation of the monks’ decision that March: “We must stand up!”66Woeser, Tibet on Fire, 26.
The message that the self-immolators sought to transmit was applicable in equal measure to their fellow Tibetans. In their final testaments, they constantly remind Tibetans not to forget their language and traditions, and exhort them to remain united and not fight among themselves. At a time when all avenues to protest were closing down and despair could easily lead to loss of hope or worse, to an acceptance of the situation as fait accompli, the self-immolators were demanding, as W.G. Sebald put it, their “right to resentment”.
An even more extreme criticism of the Tibetan self-immolators has likened their actions to that of suicide bombers, at least in their aim to make a political statement through the sacrifice of one’s own life. This comparison raises an interesting point. Jasbir K. Puar, in her book Terrorist Assemblages, comments on Ghassan Hage’s meditations on suicide bombers. She writes:
Self-annihilation is the ultimate form of resistance, and ironically, it acts as self-preservation, the preservation of symbolic self enabled through the “highest cultural capital” of martyrdom, a giving of life to the future of political struggles—not at all a sign of “disinterest in living a meaningful life.” As Hage notes, in this limited but nonetheless trenchant economy of meaning, suicide bombers are “a sign of life” emanating from the violent conditions of life’s impossibility, the “impossibility of making a life.”77 Jasbir K. Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007), 216.
This analysis holds true for both suicide bombers and self-immolators but there is a crucial distinction between the two: whereas one form of self-annihilation is predicated on the destruction of as many other lives as possible, the other is focused specifically on self-sacrifice for the benefit of the larger community. Where one is driven by hatred the other is rooted in compassion.
Since its peak in 2012, when there were eighty self-immolations, the number has steadily declined. This year, we have heard of only three incidents. It is likely that self-immolation as a form of political protest in Tibet will die out. The chief reason is the introduction of harsh laws that sentence, imprison, and torture anyone suspected of involvement, with close family members as the first targets. In their place, we are witnessing the increasing frequency of another form of protest: individuals, either alone or in pairs, walking down a busy street, holding a portrait of the Dalai Lama, and chanting slogans calling for his return and greater freedom. Within minutes, they are arrested and disappeared. As hopeless as these actions seem, these brave people are making the statement that they will continue to resist but by taking full responsibility over their actions so that no one but themselves will have to face the consequences. In this way, Tibetans will continue to find new ways of fighting back, of continually reinventing their struggle, because the alternative—the disappearance of an entire people and a culture—is all too real.
The popular Tibetan singer Lolo underlines this spirit of resistance in his song, “Raise the Tibetan Flag, Children of the Snowland.”
For the sake of protecting Tibet’s independence
Our Kings resisted the red Chinese leaders
From the true meaning of the middle path
Raise the Tibetan flag, children of the Snowland!
For the sake of honouring the Snowland
And to win Tibet’s complete independence
Based on the manifold truth
Raise the Tibetan flag, children of the Snowland!
For the sake of the return of the Protector
For the sake of uniting Tibetans home and abroad
From the wounds of the souls in flames
Raise the Tibetan flag, children of the Snowland!
This snow lion and snow mountain adorned flag
Is the national flag of the Tibetan people
Avenge those departed for the sake of Tibet
Raise the Tibetan flag, children of the Snowland!
Raise the Tibetan flag, children of the Snowland!
Lolo was arrested for the contents of his song in 2012, and sentenced to six years imprisonment, charged with the crime of “seditiously splitting the state.” He is currently serving his sentence, reportedly in ill health and under tight security.