News today that three Tibetan herders may have set themselves alight highlights the increasing frequency with which Tibetans (usually monks or nuns) have been turning to self-immolation, bringing to 19 the total that have done so in the past year.
Why are Tibetans setting themselves on fire with such frequency? The Chinese government has denied any responsibility, instead blaming the Dalai Lama for encouraging such radical actions. However, this claim doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The Chinese government has told the West that the Dalai Lama is irrelevant to Tibetans, while telling Chinese and Tibetans within China that he has been marginalized to the point of becoming a “political orphan.” It’s therefore illogical to accuse him of being the mastermind behind radical actions taken by Tibetans.
The reality is that the Dalai Lama single-handedly introduced democracy to the Tibetan government in exile immediately after he fled to India in 1959. He established an elected parliament, while the process of democratization was accelerated by his receipt of the Nobel Prize in Peace in 1989, which also bolstered secularization in the government. Last year, the Dalai Lama announced plans for his full political retirement, and with Harvard-educated lawyer Lobsang Sangay directly elected to lead a Cabinet comprising laypersons from young, well-educated, diverse and cosmopolitan backgrounds.
Such success, has, unfortunately, only deepened Beijing’s anxiety over – and hostility toward – the Dalai Lama and Tibetans. For the past five years, the military, paramilitary police, and law enforcement forces have conducted searches, arrests, blockades and attacks against monasteries and their residents. The Communist Party has, meanwhile, escalated its efforts to “modernize” Tibet, including trying to brainwash Tibetans with themes of atheism, materialism and patriotism. One example of this has been the intensification of the enforcement of its 15-year-old ban on hanging portraits of the Dalai Lama in monasteries. During this year’s two New Year’s periods (Chinese and Tibetan), the Chinese government reportedly sent a million Chinese flags and portraits of four Communist Chinese leaders (Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) to monasteries. The government has also vowed to make every monastery subscribe to The People’s Daily and The Tibetan Daily, two important Communist Party newspapers.
In addition, the Chinese government has further broadened its infiltration into religious affairs and tightened control over monasteries in an effort to impose its propaganda agenda, while uncooperative monks and nuns have been expelled. It has been reported that in Lhasa, the capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, there are more Han Chinese than Tibetans, more soldiers than monks, and more surveillance cameras than windows.
President Hu Jintao (a former Party secretary in Tibet) and Zhou Yongkang (a former Party secretary in Sichuan, where most of the self-immolations have occurred, and the current czar for internal security), should be seen as directly responsible for the current repressive policy toward Tibet.
For believers, Buddhism is seen as a way of ending suffering and death. But as Tibetan Buddhism has lost its autonomy, the unique culture and identity of Tibetans has also risked becoming extinct. Now, instead of choosing between good or bad, monks and nuns feel they have no choice but to resort to self-immolation to communicate their grievances and protests.
According to various Buddhist teachings in the school of the Greater Vehicle (Mahayana), suicide can be commended under special conditions, for example if it is conducted “out of profound inner conviction” that no good can any longer be served by the retention of the physical body, or if it is in higher service to society. Indeed, it is explicitly in The Lotus Sutra (Fahua Jing) that “setting fire to the body” or “burning the fingers or toes” might be deemed a great offering to Buddha if the Three Jewels that guide Tibetan Buddhists (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) have to be defended and honored.
It has been reported that the self-immolating monks and nuns shouted out their wishes for the return of Dalai Lama and the freedom of Tibet. If such self-immolations are to end, the global community must mobilize, and citizens must pressure their governments to work to encourage the halting of the persecution of Tibetan Buddhism and the genocide of Tibetan culture that is being perpetrated by the Chinese state. The Chinese government has shown no sign of changing course in part because global society hasn’t demonstrated its moral outrage.
Tibetan refugee and activist Lobsang Sangay once said that: “Tibetans have no oil; even our oxygen is thinner than in other places. Lamas are what we have. So the West does not care much about us.”
With more Tibetan deaths seemingly inevitable, the international community should show that the lives of Tibetans are at least as important as fluctuating oil prices. Now is time for it to show that it is willing to act to save an endangered people.
Ming Xia is a professor of Political Science at the Graduate Center and the College of Staten Island, the City University of New York.