As Self-Immolations Near 100, Tibetans Question the Effect

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NEW DELHI -- A crowd of Tibetans came here to India's capital last week, bearing flags and political banners and a bittersweet admixture of hope and despair. A grim countdown was under way: The number of Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet had reached 99, one short of an anguished milestone.

Yet as that milestone hung over the estimated 5,000 Tibetans who gathered in a small stadium, so did an uncertainty about whether the rest of the world was paying attention at all. In speeches, Tibetan leaders described the self-immolations as the desperate acts of a people left with no other way to draw global attention to Chinese policies in Tibet.

"What is forcing these self-immolations?" Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile, asked in an interview. "There is no freedom of speech. There is no form of political protest allowed in Tibet."

Billed as the Tibetan People's Solidarity Campaign, the four-day gathering featured protests, marches, Buddhist prayer sessions and political speeches in an attempt to push Tibet back onto a crowded international agenda. If the Arab Spring has inspired hope among some Tibetans that political change is always possible, it has also offered a sobering reminder that no two situations are the same, nor will the international community respond in the same fashion.

"The world is paying attention, but not enough," Mr. Sangay added. "There was a self-immolation in Tunisia which was labeled the catalyst for the Arab Spring. We've been committed to nonviolence for many decades. And how come we have been given less support than what we witnessed in the Arab world?"

Yet even as the self-immolations have become central to the Tibetan protest movement, a quiet debate has been under way among Tibetans who are anguished over the deaths of their young men and who question how the acts reconcile with Buddhist teachings. Again and again, speakers emphasized that the Tibetan movement remains nonviolent and that the people who have self-immolated harmed only themselves.

"None of them have tried to harm anybody else," said Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the Tibetan Parliament, which is based in Dharamsala, the Indian city that is host to the exiled Tibetan government. "None of the 99 people have tried to harm any Chinese."

The Tibetan self-immolations began in 2009 as protests against China's rule in Tibetan regions of the country. At least 81 Tibetans have died after their acts, and nearly all the self-immolations have occurred inside Tibet, with news smuggled out via e-mail or through networks of advocacy groups.

The Chinese authorities have responded by taking a harder line. Last week, a Chinese court handed down stiff sentences to a Tibetan monk and his nephew on charges that they had urged eight people to set themselves on fire, according to Chinese state news media. The monk was given a suspended death sentence, usually equivalent to life in prison, and the authorities have made it clear that committing or encouraging the act will be treated as intentional homicide. (Mr. Sangay said that six others in a different area of Tibet were also given harsh sentences.)

The Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, for inciting ordinary Tibetans to carry out self-immolations. Tibetans rebut the claim, saying the cause is Chinese repression.

"What are you left with?" Mr. Penpa asked. "The only thing you can do is sacrifice your life."

With the Dalai Lama having ceded political control of the Tibetan government -- and having encouraged the elections that elevated Mr. Sangay, a former lecturer at Harvard, to prime minister -- the Tibetan movement is in flux. To some degree, last week's events were part of continued efforts to establish Mr. Sangay and other democratically elected Tibetan members of Parliament as figures capable of rallying political support for a movement long dependent on the charisma and stature of the Dalai Lama. (He did not attend the gathering.)

For more than a half century, India has been the primary host of exiled Tibetans, and many of the people who flocked to New Delhi came from special Tibetan villages elsewhere in the country. Lobsang Thai, 28, who came from Mundgod, a Tibetan village in the Indian state of Karnataka, said the self-immolations reflected the desperate situation in Tibet. "I don't think it is about right or wrong," he said. "That is the only thing we can do without hurting other people. That's the best way to get the world's attention."

Tenzin Losec, 42, who is from Mainpat, a Tibetan village in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, agreed. "This is very sad for us," he said. "But people inside Tibet, they have no other way. They have no rights. Outside Tibet, we are trying to raise awareness around the world."

Tibetan leaders were determined to portray the week's events as evidence that the global community, especially India, supported their aspirations. Lawmakers and other political figures from India's leading political parties appeared at different events, though the government's top leaders stayed away.

Mr. Sangay and others want the United Nations to push China to improve conditions in Tibet and also to allow inspectors to tour the region. "The Chinese government should feel pressure to do something," he said. "This is leading to a vicious cycle: hard-line policies, protests, repression, more hard-line policies, more protests, more repression."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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