Self-immolations in Tibet: who is to blame for the stalemate?

Posted on November 23, 2012


Although the number of self-immolations is rising at an exponential and very disturbing rate in Tibet, the crisis is gradually reaching a stalemate. With no change in the horizon and less attention being paid by foreign media and governments, more and more people outside Tibet are expressing doubts about the effectiveness of such protests and wondering whether precious lives are not being sacrificed in vain.

But it would be a tremendous error if the success of such acts of defiance against China’s might were measured uniquely by the amount of attention received abroad. It would suggest that the domestic impact has no value and that demonstrations, such as the one in Rebkong after the self-immolation of Tamdrin Tso, involving several thousands of students, are meaningless. As the cousin of 21-year-old Lobsang Jamyang, who set himself on fire on 14 January 2012 in Amdo Ngaba, recently said, it is inside Tibet that the value of these actions is to be measured:

“It seems that our protests and specially the news of self-immolations fell on deaf ears but it is not true that Tibetan protests have gone unheard or unnoticed. (…) The impact of the Tibetan self-immolations in Tibet was beyond measure.”

Self-immolations could arguably be considered a failure if we think that they are primarily for foreign consumption. However, many elements tend to prove that this interpretation is painfully reductive: the eyes of the Tibetans inside Tibet may not be turned to Washington or Brussels, and it may well be that the response from the exiled Tibetan leadership is responsible for the deadly stalemate and directly influences the growing number — or any reduction — of self-immolations.

I am convinced that the failure to make good use of the current crisis is the result of two factors: (1) an incorrect assessment of self-immolators’ objectives; and (2) a far too cautious reaction from the Tibetan Government-in-Exile. For most Tibetans abroad and their supporters, the general perception is that people in occupied Tibet set themselves on fire to urge the international community to speak out and condemn the ongoing repression in Tibet. This line of thinking, unsurprisingly, leads commentators to wonder why the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi succeeded in bringing down the Tunisian regime whereas over seventy self-immolations in Tibet have not affected the world.

And it is precisely by raising the case of 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi that the reply can be found: his self-immolation (only the first of many during the Arab Spring) did not in any way prompt foreign governments to support the Tunisian Revolution — the regime was an ally of most European capitals — but it captured the discontent and frustration of Tunisians, who left their fears behind and took to the streets to bravely stand up to their leaders. Tunisia is not alone: wherever self-immolations have taken place in this world, they primarily influenced the concerned masses, not foreign governments. Expecting world leaders to be moved and to act exclusively on the basis of the gruesome sacrifice of a large number of Tibetans is pure wishful thinking; as long as the stakes are not seriously raised by Tibetans abroad, no international intervention, nor even UN resolution, can be expected.

But wondering why self-immolations in Tibet do not affect the world is also misreading self-immolators’ messages. Apart from Gudrub, the 43-year-old writer who set himself on fire in Nakchu on 4 October 2012 and who wrote “Just world, uphold the truth“, none of the self-immolators in occupied Tibet called, directly or indirectly, for foreign support — at least as far as we know. Since 1987, calls to the United Nations or to visiting diplomats have regularly been made from Tibet. This is not something unheard of. But this time, no one mentioned outside help. All the messages we are aware of are pleas for national unity. Their authors appeal to their compatriots to stand as proud Tibetans and work for the freedom of Tibet. These are calls to oppose and act against China’s tyranny, not to beg for foreign support.

The second factor accountable for the current stalemate — and by far the most important — is the extremely cautious attitude adopted by Dharamshala. The reaction of a government ought to be proportional to the magnitude of a specific national crisis or disaster. Considering the extreme methods of protest used in Tibet and the harsh response by the Chinese regime, caution and defensiveness can hardly be appropriate. Nevertheless, flying in the face of basic common sense, Sangay’s government ordered the status quo on the Middle Way Approach to be maintained, a status quo that is alarming and, by any standard, criminal.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Dharamshala has operated as if it were unaware of the true scope and domestic impact of the self-immolations. It conveniently pays little attention to calls for independence and obstinately persists in pursuing a policy that has failed to bring any result since its adoption more that thirty years ago. In this regard, it is highly ironical that Sangay’s government vows “to fulfill aspirations of Tibetans inside Tibet” while it actually tries by every means to negotiate an autonomy that visibly nobody wants. So much for the changes promised on the campaign trail.

Even more absurd is that Dharamshala has not even tried to take advantage of the self-immolations crisis to review its strategy and raise the stakes with Beijing. If not on such an occasion as this, when will its policy be adjusted? Along the same lines as in 2008, when the attention of the entire world was turned towards China and the Olympics, and protests had erupted all over occupied Tibet – or more recently when the Dalai Lama’s special envoys resigned – the Tibetan Government-in-Exile has miserably failed to display the kind of leadership required in such circumstances. The time is ripe for change, but the Tibetan leadership persists in advocating reconciliation and, despite all evidence to the contrary, refuses to acknowledge that Beijing will not negotiate until it is forced to do so by some serious challenges.

Unfortunately, Dharamshala’s stubbornness has a cost, and everything indicates that maintaining the status quo seems to have a significant influence on self-immolations. The graph below displays, in a cumulative way, a timeline of self-immolations since August 2011. For the purpose of this article, and to see whether there was any correlation, major events were plotted on the timeline.

Although it is highly imprudent and unreliable to jump to conclusions from so little data, some striking parallels can be observed. Four major periods with no immolations (highlighted in blue on the graph) are noticeable since the beginning of the crisis: three of them lasted more than a month, the other lasted twenty-four days. Interestingly, these respites do not seem to be fortuitous: each can be linked to a particular event.

The first respite was from 11 November 2011 to 5 January 2012: in fifty-six days, only one self-immolation took place. It began two days after the Karmapa urged an end to immolations, an appeal that was soon followed by the Dalai Lama voicing doubts about these sacrifices on BBC. This respite also started just after two self-immolations were carried out abroad. It is not clear whether the appeals from the two religious leaders or the protests abroad had any influence, but no one set him or herself on fire in Tibet for the next eight weeks. (However, this autumn, the second appeal by the Karmapa had no effect on protests.) This period ended while the Kalachakra initiation was being given in Bodhgaya. Immolations resumed the day after Lobsang Sangay announced that Tibetans were “ready for negotiations anywhere, anytime”, with four cases in only nine days.

The second respite, much shorter, occurred between January and February 2012 and lasted for only twenty-four days. No major event seems to have prompted it, but it ended brutally the day the Global Vigil for Tibet was launched, on 8 February.

The third and fourth respites could very accurately be linked to the Second Special Meeting called in Dharamshala to “discuss ways to deal with the present crisis in Tibet”. The first of these two respites began on 20 April, three days after the meeting was officially announced. It ended the highest peak of self-immolations ever seen in Tibet: twenty-one cases in seventy-two days, and it lasted for thirty-seven days without a single immolation attempt. For unidentified reasons, self-immolations resumed during the Saga Dawa celebrations, on 27 May, although at a slower pace than previously. By the time the fourth respite occurred, ninety-three days later, sixteen Tibetans had set themselves on fire.

The occurrence of the last respite is even more troubling. It stops with the conclusion of the special meeting, one day after more than four hundred Tibetans from twenty-six countries had appealed, in vain, to Tibetans inside Tibet not to take “drastic actions”. It seemed as if self-immolation protests had finally ceased towards the end of August, in anticipation of the outcome of the meeting, and then, as soon as it was clear that no policy shift was in store, they started again with even more intensity. In the month following the meeting, blatantly ignoring the call from the delegates, twelve self-immolations occurred in Tibet. Looking at the events of the last few days nothing seems to presage any decrease in the number of protests.

In a nutshell, if this graph is to be believed, spikes in the number of self-immolations and periods of respite are directly influenced by the initiatives or lack of guidance from the exiled leadership. The more Dharamshala is prudent, the more self-immolations there are. No other events originally plotted on the graph showed any correlation with the timeline of protests, be it religious festivals, Lobsang Sangay’s visits abroad, parliament sessions, or foreign visitors in China (former US President Carter in December 2011). Viewed from any perspective, every immolation seems to be a direct response — or a loud signal, depending on your point of view — to the Tibetan leadership.

What are we to conclude from all this? If appeals to stop self-immolations are ignored, if the primary objective of their authors is not about calling out to the international community and if, as the above chart tends to indicate, they reject the status quo as an option, the solution to the problem can only be found in a radical shift in Dharamshala’s strategy. Adding more casualties to the list of China’s wrongdoings and knocking at the door of foreign governments is definitely not enough. Nor is the “how-many-more-sacrifices-before-the-world-will act” attitude serving any purpose. When the “national drum” is being beaten loudly in Tibet, when “prime ministers” are called “kings” and when an “autonomous region” is called a “nation”, the time has come to change the rules of the game. The time has come for the Tibetan Government-in-Exile to declare the Middle Way Approach “no longer valid”, as the Dalai Lama did in 1992, and to resume active lobbying for the restoration of Tibetan independence.

I am still convinced, every bit as much as I was ten months ago when I wrote my first piece on this tragic crisis, that a change of policy from Dharamshala is the key to putting an end to self-immolations. As far as I can see, the eyes of the self-immolators are turned towards Dharamshala, and not in the direction of Beijing, Washington or Brussels. When these men and women set themselves on fire, they are sending a signal to what they consider and value as their legitimate government. This signal is a call for action, a call for unity. And I am confident that they are patiently looking not for signs of sympathy or prayers, but for clear directions and leadership. The spike of immolations that happened right after the Second Special Meeting should serve as a lesson, and remind everyone that the time for passivity is over. As Gudrub wrote in justification of self-immolation protests, “Since China is uninterested in the well-being of the Tibetan people, we are sharpening our nonviolent movement”. Can’t Dharamshala do the same?

Christophe Besuchet

BEIJING (AP) — A Tibetan man has died after setting himself on fire in northwest China’s Qinghai province, state media reported Friday, in the latest in a series of protests against Chinese rule.

The official Xinhua News Agency says Libong Tsering, 19, self-immolated in Tongren county Thursday afternoon but provided no further details about why the man set himself ablaze.

Two days earlier, Xinhua reported two Tibetan herdsmen killed themselves by setting themselves on fire in two separate incidents.

The latest death brings to at least 78 the number of Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 in protest against what overseas supporters say is China’s strict control over Tibet’s Buddhist culture and a suffocating security presence in Tibetan regions.

Most of the protesters have doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves alight after shouting slogans calling for Tibetan independence and blessings for the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader. China blames him for encouraging the wave of self-immolations that Beijing has apparently been powerless to stop despite stepped-up security and an extensive spying network.

The latest death was also reported by the self-proclaimed Tibetan government-in-exile based inIndia, which repeated a call for China to reassess its policies toward Tibetans.

“The Central Tibetan Administration urges the Chinese government to address the underlying grievances of the Tibetan people, instead of imposing counter-productive measures targeting the families and relatives of the self-immolators,” it said in a statement, using the formal name of the body headquartered in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala.


Another Tibetan set himself on fire late last night in protest against China’s continued occupation of Tibet.The Tibetan man has been identified as Tamding Kyab. Tamding Kyab, 23 years of age, set himself on fire on November 22 at around 10 pm (local time) in the Kluchu region of Kanlho, eastern Tibet.After local Tibetans recovered Tamding Kyab’s charred body this morning, they carried it to his home.Monks from the nearby Shitsang Monastery have been performing prayers at the deceased’s home and also carried out the last rites today.A nomad, Tamding Kyab was earlier a monk at the Shitsang Monastery, where currently his younger brother is studying.


Lubum Gyal, 18, set himself ablaze in Dowa town of Rebkong, eastern Tibet at around 4:20 pm (local time) in protest against China’s continued occupation of Tibet.Soon, a large number of Tibetans gathered and rescued his body from falling into the hands of Chinese authorities.Monks from the Dowa Monastery later carried out the last rites of Lubum Gyal at a nearby crematorium.Following the recent escalation in self-immolations and protests in Dowa and the adjoining regions, Chinese security personnel armed with automatic guns have forced strict restrictions on the movement of Tibetans.

Lubum Gyal is survived by his father Tsego.


CHENNAI: Chennai city police were on their toes on Wednesday afternoon after a group of Tibetan students blocked the arterial road on Anna Salai close to the US Consulate office. The arrested protestors were released in the night after being booked for unlawful assembly.

The students raised slogans demanding freedom of Tibet from China, and the return of Dalai Lama to Tibet. On learning about the sudden gathering of students, police teams rushed to the place and prevented them from moving towards the US consulate office. The students were blocked on the opposite side of the US Consulate office near Rani Seethai Hall.

Tibetan student Rinzin Dorjee, a third year BA student of Madras Christian College, said, “Nearly 64 Tibet youths have self-immolated and died since 2009, for a free Tibet. The United Nations Human Rights Commission should visit Tibet and submit a white report.”

The protest slowed down traffic on Anna Salai for about half an hour from 2.30pm.


China punishes protest self-immolations, cuts off aid to Tibetans

The Chinese authorities in Malho Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture have announced the cancellation of government aid to families of self-immolators as well as development projects in villages where Tibetans had carried out protest self-immolations.In the past three weeks, nine Tibetans have died of protest self-immolations in Rebkong County.On 9 November, about 5000 Tibetan schoolchildren held a peaceful protest march against the alarming official apathy towards rising numbers of protest self-immolation in Rongwo town before gathering at Rongwo Monastery.On 8 November, Tibetan schoolchildren in Dowa Township (Rebkong County) took down Chinese flags from their school building and the Township government office building.
In an official notification issued on 14 November by the Malho Prefectural office , local Party and government officials have been sternly given orders to punish self-immolators and their families; even those who had offered condolences and prayers to the bereaved family members and relatives.

A source told TCHRD that the notification, issued both in Tibetan and Chinese, was shown on Malho Prefectural TV channel. Only the Tibetan version is available with TCHRD.

The first point in the notification clearly states that government aid to the family members of a person who had self-immolated will be cut off for three years. In this regard, all prefectural government offices and related sections and staff have been ordered to act strictly. No one is allowed to arrange for the resumption of government aids to such families. Development funds will be cancelled to those villages where self-immolations took place; even those projects that had been approved earlier will be cancelled within three years.

In areas where these self-immolations took place, the County Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will carry out detailed investigation into the failure of Township or Village leaders and relevant Party officials to protect “stability” and “harmony”. If found responsible, these Township, Village and Party leaders will be investigated thoroughly and they will not be considered for any model worker prizes by the government in future. They will be relieved of their posts and new recruits shall be made in their place. The notification also said severe measures will be taken, according to rules and regulations of the Party and the government, against guilty officials for their inability to implement orders from the Party and the government.

The second point calls for thorough investigation to determine whether any government officials and staff had visited the homes of self-immolators to offer condolences or contributions for prayer ceremonies. Officials of the County and Township government as well as the CPC Committee should advise and guide these officials on the implication of such visits. The Public Security Bureau officers will “strike hard” on those who do not listen to such guidance.

The third point asks relevant government and Party officials to give advice and guidance to monks and lay Tibetans on the consequences of visiting homes of self-immolators to offer condolences and contributions for prayer rituals. If members of the Monastery Management Committees are found guilty in this respect, officials from the United Front Work Department, Religious Affairs Bureau and related government bureaus will handle these cases and punish them accordingly. If a village or a monastery has collectively organized prayer ceremonies and visits to the families of self-immolator, then the whole village will get no government aid. All development projects approved earlier in the village will be cancelled within three years.

The fourth point calls for a quick and thorough investigation to see whether any person, both monks and lay, had arranged and forced some officials to visit the prayer ceremonies for self-immolators. The guilty will be punished, according to the law, after detailed investigation. If village leaders are found involved in such acts, they will be relieved of their position and will be interrogated and investigated.

If high lamas [or abbots] and members of Democratic Management Committees are found involved in such acts, the notification says their monasteries will be closed following the relevant laws and required steps would be taken to purge these monasteries of instability.  Heavy punishment shall be given to those who attempt to organize themselves or form associations or groups.

The fifth point warns the average government cadres and workers from visiting homes of self-immolators and offering contributions for prayer rituals, the offence of which will attract immediate firing, followed by investigations and punishments. The government cadres and workers have been ordered to publicise the importance of the implementation of the measures listed in this notification. They are required to inform the Party and government offices in timely manner if they get any information about the matters listed in the notification.

In its introduction, the notification mentions continued incidents of instability in Malho Prefecture calling them a bad example for everyone, harming not only the stability of Gansu Province, but also that of the whole nation. As is usual in many of Chinese government pronouncements, the so-called “Dalai clique”, has been held responsible for instability in the region. “The Dalai clique, wearing religious robes, use self-immolations to create instability,”it said, adding, they are also responsible for inciting schoolchildren to create disturbances and instability. The notice expressed disapproval against the use of the word “martyr”by the “Dalai clique”to describe self-immolators.

Source : TCHRD