Self-immolations spread from Tibet to the diaspora

A Tibetan monk in exile looks on during a candle lit vigil to commemorate 50 years in exile on March 10, 2009 in Dharamsala, India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama marks 50 years of exile today in Mcleod Ganj, the seat of the exiled Tibetan government near the town of Dharamsala.
Daniel Berehulak

NEW DELHI, India — A week ago, Migmer Tenzin, a 26-year-old Tibetan exile, set himself on fire outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi.

He wanted to show his solidarity with the monks and nuns burning themselves to death in protest against China's suppression of religious freedom in Tibet, he explains.

“I just tried to show to every nation and every human being what is happening,” Tenzin told GlobalPost, speaking in broken English from his hospital bed in New Delhi.

“If I die in this action, it is OK. Our brothers and sisters in Tibet have also died in self-immolations. Unfortunately, the policeman was so fast that they stopped the fire and I am still alive.”

Tenzin, who doctors expect to make a full recovery after receiving skin grafts for serious burns on his legs, is not alone in those feelings of desperation.

As nearly a dozen religious leaders inside Tibet have tried to burn themselves to death this autumn, an uncomfortable realization is beginning to strike home in the diaspora. There's a grim reason for the mounting tide of self-immolations in the homeland they may never see. Now, perhaps more than ever before, China is winning the battle for Tibet.

Related: Tibet is burning

“The power that China is getting right now, nobody can stop them,” said Norbu Lodoe, a 32-year-old exile living in New Delhi.

Tensions have been escalating over the past year, according to Srikanth Kondipalli, a specialist in Chinese affairs at Jawaharlal Nehru University. First the Dalai Lama relinquished his political powers. Then the exile community elected a new democratic government, implicitly challenging the legitimacy of China's autocratic rule. And finally, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly hinted that he may break from tradition in choosing his successor — perhaps going so far as to reincarnate himself before he dies — to cheat Beijing of an opportunity to put forward a hand-picked rival.

Yet China has not shown the slightest willingness to give ground on the religious leader's demands for greater religious freedom and legitimate autonomy for Tibet.

“All these things put together, the elections, the self-immolations, the Dalai Lama's observations on reincarnation and the developments in Tibet, as well as no talks so far between Tibetans and Chinese, all these indicate that the tension is growing,” said Kondipalli.

So far, nine Tibetan monks or former monks and two Tibetan nuns in Sichuan province have set themselves on fire since March, according to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Six of them are believed to have died. In the most recent case, on Nov. 3, Palden Choetso, a 35-year old nun from Tawu, died after she set herself on fire.

The Chinese government has responded to the protests with mass arrests, imprisonment, and possible killings by the security forces, the human rights watchdogs said in a press release. Those arrested included 300 monks from Kirti monastery, who the authorities said were taken away for “patriotic education.”

“Years of restrictions on Tibetans’ rights have led to further unrest and acts of desperation,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said in the statement. “It is clearly time for the Chinese government to fundamentally rethink its approach by listening to and addressing Tibetans’ grievances.”

Unfortunately, Beijing is doing just the opposite.

Related: Tibetan nun burns herself to death in China

“For a long time, we have been following His Holiness the Dalai Lama's advice of nonviolence,” said Pema Tsering, a 65-year-old India resident who escaped Tibet in 1959.

“Since 1979, the Dalai Lama has proposed a middle path whereby we go back to Tibet with an autonomous government under the People's Republic of China. But the communist government has not shown any recognition or willingness to talk.”

Since the mid-1990s — when the United States abandoned efforts to make China's most-favored-nation trading status contingent on its human rights record — Beijing has rebuffed every effort of the Dalai Lama to open negotiations for increasing religious freedom in Tibet. 

Moreover, as its economic might has continued to increase, China has taken the battle further, successfully exporting its repression of dissent to its neighbors in South and Southeast Asia, where Vietnam recently cracked down on members of the Falun Gong religious sect.

Despite pledging to improve its track record on human rights in its bid to host the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, for example, in the leadup to the games China stepped up the crackdown.

Chinese authorities crushed protests in Tibet — allegedly killing more than 150 people, according to the Tibetan government-in-exile. As calls for a boycott of the opening ceremony faded, Beijing prevailed upon neighboring Nepal to arrest hundreds of Tibetan exiles to prevent them from demonstrating in solidarity. And when the protests cost them nothing, the Chinese sought to up the ante.

In June 2010, Nepal sent at least three escaping Tibetan refugees back to China, violating a United Nations-brokered “gentleman's agreement” under which Kathmandu pledged in 1989 to allow fleeing Tibetans safe passage to India. Similarly, in June of this year, Washington was compelled to urge Kathmandu to register Tibetan exiles born after 1990 — the last time a census of Nepal's Tibetan refugees was conducted.

“Since some time ago, the Nepal government has stopped renewing or issuing fresh refugee cards, so the community is facing very, very tough times in Kathmandu,” a Tibetan exile in Nepal told GlobalPost.

In October 2010, the Nepalese authorities blocked local efforts to participate in elections for the Tibetan government-in-exile, seizing ballot boxes to prevent local refugees from voting for the exiles' first prime minister.

On Nov. 1, the Nepalese government once again arrested dozens of protesters in an effort to scuttle what Beijing calls “anti-China activities” — only to face renewed protests and an attempt at self-immolation by an as yet unidentified Tibetan exile chanting “Long live Tibet.”

Related: Dalai Lama blames "cultural genocide" in Tibet for self-immolations

“There is immense pressure from the Chinese on the Nepal government in the recent days,” said Siddartha Gautam, chairman of Nepal's Lumbini Foundation, a Buddhist non-profit that works with the local Tibetan community.

Indeed, according to a spokesman for Nepal's home ministry, Kathmandu may crack down further on the Tibetan community if protests continue as a likely visit by the Chinese premier approaches on Dec. 21.

“This will lead to a situation where the government may have to slash all the facilities being granted to the Tibetans residing in Nepal, such as that of their freedom to move even,” said spokesman Sudhir Kumar Saha. Saha specified that the government may decide to put a ban on Tibetan exiles' business activities and their freedom of movement within the country if protests continue.

Chinese affairs specialist Kondipalli says there's no sign, so far, that India will follow suit.

As a condition of providing refuge for the Dalai Lama and other Tibetans who escaped the Chinese invastion of Tibet in 1959, India agreed that it would not provide a base for exiles to engage in political mobilization. But unlike Kathmandu, New Delhi allowed the elections of the government-in-exile to proceed without interference last year, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently met with the Dalai Lama against Chinese objections.

Still, the suppression of protests, and even arrests, are not unknown in India, either. And in some regards, at least, China has succeeded in converting the Tibetans into a bargaining chip for India, rather than a humanitarian cause.

Recently, the censors ordered a Bollywood film to cut a scene that depicted protesters waving Tibetan flags, even as the Indian media questioned the Chinese ambassador over maps that depicted parts of Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh as belonging to China.

Similarly, Beijing has used India's suppression of separatists in the disputed territory of Kashmir to prevent New Delhi from pushing too hard on Tibet.

In 2009, the Chinese embassy in India began issuing stapled visas to Indians from Kashmir, implicitly rejecting the validity of their Indian passports. Soon after, India's foreign minister was compelled to plead with his Chinese counterpart to be "sensitive to our concerns on this very vital issue for India, just as we have been sensitive to Chinese concerns, for instance on the Tibet Autonomous region and Taiwan," India's Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao told journalists in 2010.

“India has its own problems with human rights in Kashmir, so it doesn't want the finger pointed at itself,” said Abanti Bhattacharya, a professor of Chinese studies at Delhi University. “India is rather in a dilemma at supporting such a cause.”

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.