Please also see Saransh Sehgal’s interview with Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the Kalon Tripa (prime minister) of the Tibetan government in exile here.
Since 2009 an estimated 71 Tibetans have set themselves on fire inside China (as of this filing), constituting one of the biggest waves of political self-immolations in recent memory. Despite being given scant attention globally, Tibetans have regularly set themselves on fire as a means of protesting China’s repressive policies in the region. The latest incident occurred on Sunday in Gansu province, capping off a particularly deadly week that saw eight self-immolations, along with a major street demonstration by hundreds of Tibetan students in Eastern Tibet. This, of course, all takes place against the backdrop of the ongoing 18th Communist Party Congress.
The reaction from Beijing has not been encouraging. Lobsang Gyaltsen, a delegate at the CPC congress and vice governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region said on November 8, “Overseas separatists entice victims. Those people who support Tibetan independence call their deeds a heroic act and these people heroes.”
“It is actually an act of murder to entice somebody to commit suicide …. The Dalai Lama group is sacrificing other people’s lives to achieve their evil goals,” he added.
Meanwhile, Beijing has also been ratcheting up security in Tibet and has banned foreign journalists from working in the area.
Kate Saunders, the spokesperson for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet, told The Diplomat, “The self-immolations are a dramatic and visible counter to the claims of the Chinese Communist Party to be improving Tibetans’ lives and they are a direct challenge to the Party’s legitimacy in Tibet. The international community should also prevail upon the Chinese leadership to end the military buildup and limit the dominance of the security apparatus, factors that have intensified the dangers in Tibet, increasing the risk of more self-immolations.”
However, with little information leaking out of the Himalayan plateau it difficult for exiled Tibetans to raise global awareness about the Tibetan community’s plight inside China. The self-immolations by Buddhist monks, nuns and ordinary Tibetans help overcome this difficulty because the act’s powerful symbolism attracts international attention and media coverage.
Still, the violent nature of the act makes it controversial within the Tibetan community. For instance, even as the Dalai Lama has labeled the CCP’s Tibet policy “cultural genocide,” he continues to oppose all forms of violence on both sides.
The scene in the exiled Tibetan camp remains grim as over 50 years have passed and negotiations between the two sides have failed to produce a lasting solution to the issue. Meanwhile resentment builds among overseas Tibetans as they increasingly doubt they will see a free Tibet within their lifetimes. Nonetheless, the words of the Dalai Lama continues to lift Tibetans’ spirits, giving them hope that Beijing’s Tibet policy could soften following the leadership transition that is currently underway in Beijing.
“Sixty years of failed Chinese policy has created a cumulative effect that has contributed to a society in which Tibetans’ human rights are routinely abused and Tibetans are marginalized politically, socially and economically. With the number of self-immolations…China’s next leader Xi Jinping faces a challenging task in resolving the crisis in Tibet,” says Dharamsala-based Tsering Choedup of the International Tibet Network.
“It is the right time – with the leadership handover – China realizes the fact that their hardline policy of crushing Tibetan dissidents isn’t yielding results but rather sewing seeds of deep resentment,” the exiled-Tibetan added.
Exiled Tibetans are also calling on the international community to exert greater pressure on the Chinese government in hopes of convincing the latter to concede its current policy has failed and, consequently, agreeing to resume dialogue with Tibetan leaders in an effort to find a sustainable solution.
Despite the self-immolations, however, outside powers have become more reluctant to push the Tibet issue as China has grown more powerful. Although many countries and international human rights groups have issued statements, the Chinese government has continuously ignored them by telling critics not to meddle in its internal affairs.
The United States, however, has defied Beijing’s wishes in an effort to continue championing human rights in Asia, becoming the first country to send a diplomat to the region where most incidents of self-immolation have occurred since the turmoil began. Gary Locke, America’s ambassador to China, visited Aba County in Sichuan in September where he met monks and local residents. Many, however, speculate that the rare trip was orchestrated by Beijing to assuage U.S. doubts over its handling of Tibet. Meanwhile, the Presidential candidates in the recent U.S. election, while regularly discussing China’s economic policies, said little about Beijing’s involvement in Tibet.
Exiled Tibetans have therefore turned their attention to CCP’s leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping. As the number of self-immolations rise, maintaining stability in the restive Tibetan areas will be a key test for China’s next leader, and Tibetan activists have already challenged him to take “immediate steps towards a just and lasting resolution to the occupation of Tibet, or face greater international condemnation and domestic instability.”
For his own part, the Dalai Lama suggested he is optimistic when he recalled Xi Jinping’s father during an interview with Reuters, describing the elder Xi as, “very friendly, comparatively more open-minded, very nice.” Additionally, Xi’s wife, Peng Liyuan, is a Buddhist herself and hosted the first World Buddhist Forum in China. The Dalai Lama went on to say he was “encouraged” by recent meetings he had with Chinese delegates who claimed they were close to senior Chinese officials.
At the same time, many analysts have cautioned that it is far too early to suppose the incoming leadership will take any bold initiatives on Tibet.
Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University told The Diplomat, “In the short term the Chinese leadership is unlikely to loosen its harsh policies in Tibet. Especially when there’s a leadership change occurring, it is incumbent on the incoming leaders to show strength with regard to what are called China’s core interests, one of which is Tibet.”
Still, many in the exile Tibetan community remain hopeful that Beijing could make changes under the new leadership. “These acts of self-immolations directly challenge the leaders in Beijing, telling them that they would rather die than live under such intolerable circumstance when the very survival of Tibetans is under threat. The Chinese policies are worse than the pain inflicted by self-immolation, it is time China take responsibility for this and urgently come forward to stop the situation from getting worse,” says Lobsang Wangyal, an exiled Tibetan entrepreneur living in India.
Saransh Sehgal writes about Tibet and geopolitics in the Himalayan region. He is currently based in Dharamsala, India and Vienna, Austria.