A new, completely unprecedented pattern of political resistance has swept across the Tibetan plateau. In the past year, more than 30 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule, in what amounts to one of the world’s largest waves of self-immolation in the past several decades.
The Chinese government’s systematic cultural and religious repression have driven some Tibetans to these desperate acts of resistance, in the hopes of ending government interference and bringing the Dalai Lama back from exile. Ten of the self-immolations have occurred in the past month alone, and 23 are known to have been fatal. Strikingly, most of these immolations have taken place far from Tibet’s capital, in the ethnic Tibetan regions of China’s Sichuan and Qinghai provinces — most have also been carried out by Tibetans under 30, some in their teens.
The exact reasons for this particular method of protest — possibly the most radical form of political self-expression — are unknown. The self-immolations may have been inspired by the Arab Spring demonstrations, although according to Tsering Tsomo, the Executive Director of the Tibetan Centre on Human Rights and Democracy, the protest method is not a direct result of whatever happened in Tunisia. “It’s more that it’s a desperate measure that some Tibetans feel forced to undertake because they want the world to listen,” she said.
Although suicide is normally shunned in Buddhism, self-sacrifice for a noble cause is highly regarded. Tibetans have celebrated the self-immolators, many of them monks and nuns, as martyrs of the Tibetan cause. At the same time, Tsomo, a Tibetan-in-exile herself, remarked, “It’s really troubling and heartbreaking for Tibetans to see this sort of thing.”
The roots of the self-immolations can be traced back to 1994, when the Chinese government, in a reversal of the self-management policies of the 1980s, dramatically tightened its grip on Tibet. It declared the Dalai Lama an enemy, forced monks and nuns to denounce him, and greatly intensified regulations on monasteries. It first implemented these policies in the Tibetan Autonomous Region — the western half of the Tibetan plateau that contains the Tibetan capital, Lhasa — but in the past decade, it has gradually expanded them to the eastern half, where most Tibetans live and where most of the current self-immolations have occurred.
It’s unclear why the government extended these policies to the eastern regions, since they had been relatively peaceful since the late 1970s. Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, speculated, “I think the answer is that it’s a kind of bureaucratic paralysis, that the issue of Tibet got handed down to second-caliber officials who in the early ‘90s came up with very aggressive short-term policies that involved attacking the Dalai Lama and Tibetan culture, and their careers depend on their maintaining these policies.” Describing something similar to a positive feedback loop, he added, “It seems to be just a kind of internal vicious circle, that the more you oppress, the more those officials benefit, and the more they provoke more protests.”
These intrusive policies, vary from county to county and continue to expand in reach. Some include “patriotic reeducation” programs in monasteries — in which refusal to comply can result in forced expulsion from a monastery as well as bans on worshipping the Dalai Lama, encouraging Chinese migration into Tibetan regions, and downgrading the role of the Tibetan language in schools.
This past March, Maqu County Tibetan Middle School in eastern Tibet switched from Tibetan to Chinese as its language of instruction, provoking a series of protests across the region. Shortly afterward, twenty-year-old Tsering Kyi set herself on fire in her town’s vegetable market and died on site. The entire eastern region is bristling with antipathy and frustration, fueling a growing sense of nationalism.
“It’s not that these people are radical,” according to Barnett, in an interview with Asia Society. “It is that China’s policies … [have] turned a formerly complex Tibetan cultural sphere into a relatively unified sphere of political dissent.” Tsomo echoed his sentiments, noting, “The sense of Tibetan identity is now very strong in non-TAR [Tibetan Autonomous Region] areas. The resistance among Tibetans is much more than anything I’ve ever witnessed.”
The epicenter of this recent surge of resistance has been the Kirti monastery, which is one of the largest and most influential monasteries in eastern Tibet. It has also been subjected to increasing scrutiny since 1997. When a 20-year-old monk from the monastery set himself on fire in March 2011 to mark the anniversary of a brutally crushed protest in the last bout of Tibetan unrest in 2008 — in what became the first of this past year’s wave of self-immolations — the Chinese government responded dramatically. It blockaded the monastery and arrested over 300 monks. The move only provoked more self-immolations: at least 20 took place in the surrounding county alone, most carried out by current or former monks at the monastery.
Furthermore, it flooded the surrounding town, Aba, with security forces and barricades, so that it now resembles a military post. As part of its crackdown, the government has fastidiously confiscated any images of the immolations and suppressed any coverage of the events within its borders.
Interestingly, the vast majority of the self-immolators were of young age, implicating a new generation of politically engaged Tibetans who are frustrated with the Dalai Lama’s conciliatory “middle way” approach to China and who feel the need to resort to extreme measures to induce any change. “There is disillusionment among certain youngsters who think that things are not moving as fast as they should,” Tsomo remarked. Barnett agreed, saying, “It probably comes from the fact that they live in a very exciting, opening world where they do get some sense of what China promises to its own people and to some extent delivers in the big Chinese cities in the east. But they find that in areas where they live, these promises are not delivered.”
This outburst of self-immolations, however dramatic, has garnered relatively limited attention in the outside world. Without graphic images for the world to rally around, the concerns of the immolators have gained little international momentum. “China is such a huge economic power that a lot of countries don’t want to jeopardize their own interests by talking about problems in Tibet,” Tsomo suggested.
But Barnett commented, “International coverage is a kind of thermometer to measure what’s happening, not a solution. The real, key issue is how the Tibetans respond, how it changes the whole relationship between Tibetans and China.” He added, “The indications are that [the self-immolations are] a huge mobilizing device that radicalizes Tibetans and brings them together. They may have a profound effect on political thinking among Tibetans inside Tibet—we don’t know what form that will take but it could be a sea change in the whole history of this issue.”
The long-term effects of the self-immolations, which could be considerable, are unclear. Short-term concessions seem unlikely, as the Chinese government has only escalated its repression in Tibet—a counterproductive approach that has only provoked more suicide-protests. “I think what we have here is a real dilemma and a potential tragedy,” Barnett observed. “The Chinese government is an authoritarian government that always has to look strong and has a huge disincentive for giving any concessions, but if they don’t give any concessions, the situation is going to get worse.”
Undoubtedly, the self-immolations have brought Tibet to another decisive moment in its relations with China, but unless some sort of solution is found, they may likely just continue.
Cindy Hwang is a freshman in Berkeley College.