Beijing 'embarrassed' as scores die by self-immolation in protest against 'colonial rule' and eradication of Tibetan culture
Tibetan refugees are shown holding placards and candles during a vigil following the self-immolation of two Tibetans in Bangalore on March 5, 2016. Since the first recorded case of self-immolation in modern Tibet on Feb. 27, 2009, there have been another 153 such cases in which 133 have protesters have died, mostly in protest against Beijing's ironclad control of the Himalayan region. (Photo by Manjunath Kiran/AFP)
On Nov. 4 in the Ngaka Tibetan and Qian Autonomous Prefecture a 23-year-old Tibetan man called Dorbe set himself alight in protest against the Chinese government while also calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, the Buddhist leader-in-exile.
According to Tibetan human rights groups, this took the number of known cases of self-immolation in Tibet to 153, with 133 of the protesters dying in the process.
But the news of Dorbe's demonstration and violent death would not be known to the outside world until five days later.
Beijing has taken strict measures to control the flow of news pertaining to Tibetans who make the ultimate sacrifice of taking their own lives to rally against the perceived injustices of the state.
The government always begins the same way: by controlling the dissemination of information in a bid to cover the issue up, making it very difficult for foreign countries to stay abreast of such developments.
Finally, the person's family, village and monastery are subjected to severe collective punishment. Spreading the news requires tremendous courage and puts that person at risk of being apprehended, imprisoned, and sentenced.
In China, most people have little interest in such "suicides" aside from a select group of intellectuals and artists who sympathize with the protesters and pay close attention to such incidents.
But when it comes to choosing between their conscience and their vested interests, the majority of these so-called experts and scholars invariably choose the latter.
They would not dare to overstep the government's "red line" or challenge the authorities by making irrelevant remarks and comments that make the powers that be look bad.
I was surfing the internet recently when I stumbled upon some information compiled by the China Global Network in November 2013. This included an experts' address delivered at a symposium organized that month by the Charhar Institute, a non-governmental think tank on diplomacy and international relations. Among the topics discussed were minority conflict and management.
Many experts raised a number of problems related to ethnic minorities, but on the whole they avoided the essence of the problem. Yan Qing, a professor at Minzu University in Beijing, finally raised the issue of cases of self-immolation among Tibetan Buddhists.
"What we can't avoid is that, on the one hand, we have the most wonderful response from the international community regarding our economic development; on the other hand, we have encountered two problems: one is 'die in front of others' faces' while the other is 'we die together'; the former refers to cases of self-immolation while the latter refers to the violence of terror. These are among the most embarrassing issues we face."
So-called Chinese experts and scholars like Yan despise the Tibetan form of protest as "an embarrassment." They rarely if ever consider the historical background or social reasons behind why people are voluntarily subjecting themselves to such a painful and public death.
Compared to China, the international community reacts very differently, usually by expressing widespread concern and sympathy for the Tibetan self-immolation protests.
In particular, international human rights organizations are very concerned about the issue and have urged the Chinese government to improve the human rights situation in Tibet.
Even many overseas Chinese who are scholars and writers have spoken out about this. They study and analyze the historical background and social reasons behind this alarming trend in-depth.
"The new generation of rebellious Tibetans was mostly born in the 80s and 90s. They are the generation that came after China's reform and open door policy. They haven't suffered in Chinese history. So why do they embark on such a path of determined resistance? The Chinese Communist regime never seems to think about this," said one Chinese writer.
On Oct. 4 of this year, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence publicly mentioned the issue in his speech on Washington's China policy at the Hudson Institute, a think tank based in the American capital.
"Beijing is also cracking down on Buddhism. Over the past decade more than 150 Tibetan Buddhist monks have lit themselves on fire to protest China's repression of their beliefs and culture," he said.
He also cited the expansion of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), saying that "soon after it took power in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party began to pursue authoritarian expansionism." The protesting Tibetans can be seen as a product of this.
The first recorded incident of self-immolation in modern Tibet occurred on Feb. 27, 2009.
A monk named Tapey from Kirti Monastery in Ngaba — it has since become Aba Prefecture in southern China's Sichuan Province — set himself on fire in a township. China's military police did not hesitate to fire rounds at Tapey. They also kicked his body, but made it look as though they were doing so to put out the remaining flames.
Since then a wave of deaths by self-immolation has swept through Tibet, as well as parts of India and Nepal. Most of the protesters were monks, nuns or former monks. Some were teenagers.
Nearly a decade later some 153 Tibetans in China have given their lives to call for an end to "colonial rule" by Beijing. Some have called this the most powerful wave of political protest by fire in mankind's modern history.
But the truth of the matter is that this form of protest represents a linear continuation of the Tibetan protest movement of 2008.
If we look back at history, several other countries have also experienced self-immolation protests. They have been less frequent and occurred over a shorter space of time, but they achieved results.
In contrast, the Chinese government seems unfazed and continues to intensify its suppression of Tibetan culture and religion while turning a blind eye to all the deaths by self-immolation.
This is the true nature of the centralized power of a dictatorship.
Yet, is it normal for the Chinese people to ignore such a large number of self-immolation protests? From another perspective, it shows how Tibetans have more to contend with than just the CCP government with all its centralized power: they also have to square off against an uncaring public.
In any case, due to the CCP having forcibly occupied Tibet to implement colonial rule, Tibetans must keeping protesting with even greater determination, just as their compatriots did in Lhasa in 2008.
"We are the soul of those you killed after 1949," said a Tibetan who was among the protesters in Lhasa that year.
He was referring to the aftermath of the Chinese Revolution that began when Mao Zedong declared the foundation of the People's Republic of China and Tibet was occupied.
"We never fear death! We die now but we will return. After returning, our protests will continue until the day Tibet gains true freedom."
Sang Jieja is a Tibetan writer, commentator and a former Chinese spokesman for the exiled Tibetan government. He is now studying in Spain.
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