On February 24, Phagmo Dundrup, a Tibetan farmer in his early twenties, committed the ultimate act of protest, setting himself on fire in the monks’ debating area of Chachung monastery in Tsoshar Prefecture, Qinghai province, in eastern Tibet’s Amdo region.
A day later, Tseung Kyab, another Tibetan in his twenties, did the same outside Shitsang Gonsar monastery in Luqu county, Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Gansu province (also in the Amdo region). Both died.
A third monk also self immolated in Sichuan province the same day. Police extinguished the flames and he was rushed to a hospital before ending up in an unknown location.
These were the most recent in a mounting list of Tibetan monks who have self-immolated. According to Kate Saunders, Communications Director of the International Campaign for Tibet, since February 2009, some 107 Tibetans have lit themselves on fire in China, including a 19-year-old female student, a widowed mother of four, and the grandfather of an important reincarnate lama. (A full list of self-immolations by Tibetans can be seen here.) And the number is rising.
“There was an escalation in self-immolations in Tibet during and after the Chinese Communist Party Congress – a once-in-a-decade leadership transition – with 28 Tibetans setting fire to themselves last November when the Congress was held,” Saunders told The Diplomat.
Of the recent wave of self-immolations, she added, “This constitutes one of the biggest waves of self-immolation as political protest globally in the past 60 years.”
While it is hard to imagine the scene witnessed by the religious pilgrims who were said to be gathered at the monasteries last month to commemorate the end of the Tibetan New Year festival (Losar), legendary war correspondent for The New York Times David Halberstam recounted a similar incident in his book The Making of a Quagmire – in this case, the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. The account reads:
“Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
A haunting photograph of Thich Quang Duc engulfed in flames while sitting in a meditative pose, just as Halberstam described, has become a universal icon for protest against injustice. So ubiquitous has the image become that even the MTV generation instantly recognizes it via rock band Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled album cover released in 1992.
As an article in Time magazine notes, this ultimate act of self-sacrifice is not new. In India, there was the practice of sati, in which widows burned themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. This rite stemmed from the Hindu myth of Sati, wife of Shiva, who committed herself to flames after her father insulted her husband.