Since March 2011, a total of 57 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese government policies. Members of the monastic community, lay Tibetans, and exile officials alike feel great empathy for those who have died, even as they debate the morality or utility of such acts. They thus find it difficult to outright condemn the self-immolations.
Chinese authorities, however, consider the protests a source of social instability, and the self-immolations themselves a form of terrorism. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei recently stated that "To our knowledge most of the self-immolation cases in the Tibetan-inhabited regions are related to the instigation of the Dalai clique. In order to realize their separatist goals, the Dalai clique has incited some people to self-immolate. This is despicable and should be condemned."
However, the Central Tibetan Administration has repeatedly urged Tibetans to refrain from "drastic actions," fearing that continued self-immolations will result only in further repression. Exile leaders have asked Tibetans to "focus on secular and monastic education to provide the necessary human resources and the capability to strengthen and sustain our movement."
Self-Immolation and Protest as Political Tools
Why are Tibetans increasingly employing self-immolation as a political tool? First, there is growing frustration in Tibet that the Chinese government has not demonstrated sincerity by engaging in serious negotiations with the Dalai Lama. Many fear that the Dalai Lama will be unable to return to Tibet prior to his death, thus denying entire generations of Tibetan Buddhists meaningful contact with their spiritual leader. In fact, many of those who self-immolated called for the Dalai Lama’s return to underscore the significance of this issue.
Experts suspect that Beijing has spurned serious negotiations because the CCP believes that international support for the Tibetan cause will dramatically decline following the charismatic leader’s death. An article in China’s Global Times noted that “Recent years have seen the marginalization of the Tibet issue in the world. International society attaches more importance to their relations with China. Under such a climate, the ‘Free-Tibet’ movement becomes inopportune." The Chinese appear to believe that time is on their side as their nation grows in power and stature.
Such a strategy could easily backfire, however, threatening the “harmonious society” that the Chinese leadership strives to create. As Tibetans are left with fewer and fewer options to express their widespread disenchantment with the Chinese government, committing increasingly aggressive acts of political dissent – including demonstrations, self-immolations, rioting, and even acts of sabotage – may yet appear more rational than refusing to act at all. If the Tibetan people come to regard the status quo as intolerable and within the domain of losses, then they may lash out against the regime despite the certainty of harsh government retaliation and repression.
Second, the self-immolations and protests reflect widespread anger over the lack of fundamental freedoms and human rights in Tibet, as well as official policies that appear to threaten the traditional religious, cultural, and linguistic practices that underpin the Tibetan identity. A wide range of prominent figures – running the gamut from global political leaders to transnational non-governmental organizations, to academics and experts on Tibet – have argued that the Chinese government needs to address the counterproductive policies that cause tensions in the region.
Despite international calls for the PRC to reevaluate its policies, authorities in Beijing continue to insist that those who committed acts of self-immolation are separatists whose views do not represent mainstream Tibetan opinion. The Global Times argues that the Dalai Lama himself is actively instigating unrest in the region, in order to disrupt economic development, gain publicity for the exile cause, and force Beijing to enter into negotiations with the “separatist government.” His actions are not reflective of “power and influence,” but rather “desperation and fragility.”
Beijing has hitherto given no indication that it will alter its policies. On the contrary, it appears that the government is retrenching by cracking down on all forms of dissent and increasing its security presence in the region. Jia Qinling, chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, recently stated that the CCP would prioritize "greater development in China's ethnic Tibetan regions, as well as more efforts to fight the Dalai Lama clique, in order to ensure the regions' lasting stability."
Beijing has a responsibility to provide Tibetans with the meaningful autonomy and religious freedoms guaranteed under the PRC constitution and international human rights conventions to which China is a party or signatory. As the Dalai Lama noted on the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “There cannot be peace and stability as long as there is oppression and suppression. It is unfair to seek one's own interests at the cost of other people's rights.” Any government purporting to defend fundamental human rights would do well to heed his words.
Now is the time for speaking frankly with Beijing about the consequences of its present policies. As two states with significant historical and current interests in Tibet, India and the United States should lead this effort. The failure to bring peace and greater freedoms to the Himalayan Plateau would mark a tragic conclusion to the peaceful, democratic legacy that the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has spent much of his life building.
Julia Famularo is a research affiliate at the Project 2049 Institute and a Georgetown University doctoral candidate in modern East Asian political history. This article included excerpts from her Project 2049 policy monograph, Spinning the Wheel: Policy Implications of the Dalai Lama's Reincarnation.