Tibet: What does a trend of self-immolations tell us?


On Friday, two teenaged Tibetans, both former monks, set themselves on fire at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in eastern Tibet (Chinese: Sichuan province). Together, they raise the number of self-immolations this year to seven.

Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, goes by the name Tendor. He is a Tibetan born and raised in exile near Dharamsala, India. Tendor is a firm believer in non-violent resistance. "I think we can win," he said during a telephone interview. "I want to be a part of this struggle that will fundamentally shift the way people think about violence and non-violence."

Here, he talks with GlobalPost about the Tibetans' nonviolent quest as a jarring backdrop for what the media has begun referring to as a "small but growing phenomenon" of monks burning themselves alive to protest Chinese oppression.

GlobalPost: Since March of this year, seven monks have burned themselves alive in protest of China's hold over Tibet. How do you make sense of this growing trend?

Tenzin Dorjee: Self-immolation is pretty much unheard of in Tibetan society. It had actually never happened before except one time in India, back in 1998, when an elderly Tibetan man, a former monk in exile, burned himself alive during a hunger strike relay organized by the Tibetan Youth Congress in Delhi.

But it had never happened in Tibet, even during China's invasion of Tibet in the 1950s or during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Until March of 2009, when a monk in his 20s set himself on fire at Kirti monastery. It had a profound impact on the Tibetan psyche.

Now this year alone, seven monks have committed acts of self-immolation in what are clearly very, very political acts directed at the Chinese government. These are young monks in the prime of their lives, making the strongest possible political statement demanding freedom for Tibet.

Why is this trend surfacing now? What has changed recently?

It's clearly because China has escalated its repression in Tibet.

Since 2008, the number of Chinese troops in places like Ngaba country (Aba in Chinese), which is where the Kirti monastery is located, has skyrocketed. Often, the number of troops exceeds the number of Tibetans. Checkpoints at street corners, and surveillance cameras on both sides of the street. They have turned Tibet into a war zone.

The Chinese government decided to crack down on Kirti monastery because many of its monks participated in peaceful demonstrations. Chinese authorities started re-education sessions there, literally trying to change the psychology of the monks. They are forcing them to denounce the Dalai Lama, which is one of the most difficult things for a monk to do since he is their teacher. In Buddhist belief, if you break your relationship with your teachers, then you break your relationship with the dharma, condemning yourself to ignorance for lives to come.

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Until recently, there were around 2,500 monks in the Kirti monastery. It was one the main centers of learning and education. Now, Chinese police have raided the premises and sent many monks back to their homes. Over the summer, they arrested 300 monks and sent them away to a detention center. Those monks are still unaccounted for. The number of monks in the monastery has gone down to 400.

Today, we are hearing that there are over 100 Chinese government officials stationed in the monastery, watching and monitoring everything. They're also planning to build four sub-police stations within the monastery.

What does the trend indicate?

Tibetans have reached a breaking point, and Tibetans don't break easily. Places like Bellevue hospital in New York City that research PTSD cases are constantly amazed that Tibetans refugees — after crossing the Himalayas with Chinese soldiers chasing them — are resilient in the face of trauma, probably thanks to the strength they draw from Buddhist teachings. The growing number of self-immolations means that China's brutality has escalated to such a degree that even Tibetans cannot take it any more.

In some religions, I've heard there are incentives to martyr oneself. That isn't the case in Buddhism, which in general forbids people from taking life, even their own. There is no religious incentive for burning oneself alive, but still people are doing it. The situation has gone beyond the political or the religious, it's become a desperate cry.

Do you think the trend will continue?

The latest we’ve heard, posters were going up in Kirti, saying that if the Chinese government doesn’t withdraw troops and officials from the monastery, then more would be willing to take these extreme acts. It's very likely we'll see more of these incidents as long as China's stranglehold in Tibet continues.

Will it work?

Global intervention is seriously needed at this point — a multilateral, coordinated approach to dealing with the Chinese government is probably the only thing that can save Tibetan lives.

The Chinese always try to use the economic stick to deter criticism. If more governments come together in a coordinated approach, that will deny the Chinese government that advantage.

Beijing may not listen to Tibetans on fire, but it will listen to global pressure.

What is the media missing in coverage of this story?

Ngaba, Kardze, Sertha, Rebkong, Zorge and even Lhasa have been sharpening their game for the last several months. They are engaging in a Tibetan self-reliance movement known as Lhakar. They aren't going to wait for Chinese policies to change, they are taking matters into their own hands.

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For instance, many Tibetans only go to Tibetan shops and restaurants. In Nangchen, Tibetans refused to buy vegetables from Chinese stores where the prices were through the roof. Their boycott actually prompted some of the Chinese shops to close, and now Tibetans have started opening up their own shops. These are incredible victories we are seeing amidst such repressive climate.

Last October, China announced a plan to replace the Tibetan language with Chinese in schools, putting Tibetans at a huge disadvantage. Tibetans got together and decided there was no reason to abandon their own language. They started making up their own rules.

They decided to speak only in Tibetan, and if they accidentally say a Chinese word they fine themselves half a yuan. A lot of monks, every time they utter a Chinese word they put money in a fine box. They aren’t doing anything illegal according to China's constitution. The fine is voluntary, and now it's become a growing trend in many Tibetan areas.

So, the campaign of repression that China is waging in Tibet is ironically boosting this self-reliance movement, which is less risky and more sustainable.

As a proponent of non-violence, are you offended by these acts of self-immolation?

Absolutely not. These acts are completely nonviolent.

These monks have not taken a single life other than their own. It's a very conscious decision they are making not to harm someone else.  

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