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.
In modern times, Czechs did it in protest to Soviet occupation in 1968, Kurds did it to protest Turkey in 1999, and Beijing authorities claimed that Falun Gong devotees lit themselves aflame in the middle of Tiananmen Square in 2009. Starting in late-2010 a wave of self-immolations swept through North Africa, mainly in Tunisia. And in South Korea Buddhist monk Ven. Moonsu set himself alight in 2010 to protest the Four Rivers Restoration Project.
But Tibet is the by and large the global epicenter of self-immolations. For Tibetans the action takes on a deep cultural and religious significance; which leads inevitably back to their exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
El-Branden Brazil, a British photojournalist and political activist with deep ties to Burma and Tibet, points out an interesting contrast between Tibetan and Burmese monks. In Burma, monks have been politically engaged via the Saffron Revolution, but have avoided violence.
By contrast, he told The Diplomat, “In Tibet there is fervor for more radical protest among the younger Tibetans. But the Dalai Lama tries to quell violent protest. There has been much controversy over the Dorje Shugden cult. Dorje Shugden is a fiery Dharma protector, whose worship was banned by the Dalai Lama, out of fear that it would encourage violence.”
Saunders added, “Many Tibetans who have self-immolated have sought to underline the religious context of their acts. Some have died with their hands clasped in prayer. The clearest message from almost all Tibetans who set themselves on fire is for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet.”
While self-immolations generate significant media coverage, like Burma’s Saffron Revolution, quieter forms of homegrown, peaceful protest are also taking root in Tibet. Two noteworthy examples that have emerged since the March 2008 uprising are the Lhakar Movement and the Tsampa Revolution (referring to roasted barley, a staple of the Tibetan diet).
“An alternative narrative of cultural resilience is taking shape in Tibet as Tibetans take increasingly bold steps to defend the core values of their culture,” Saunders said.
The Tsampa Revolution revolves around efforts to solidify Tibetan identity. Those engaged in the effort include artists who draw on Tibetan motifs in unconventional ways, rappers and hip-hop artists who metaphorically allude to the exiled Dalai Lama or Karmapa in their lyrics and communities aimed at preserving the Tibetan language.
In the Lhakar Movement, every Wednesday is reserved as the Dalai Lama’s “soul day” during which Tibetans wear traditional outfits, speak their mother tongue, eat in Tibetan restaurants and support Tibetan businesses as much as possible.
While not all Tibetans would condone self-immolation wholeheartedly, the act undoubtedly sends shockwaves through the community and region. “In many cases, self-immolations have led to open expressions of community solidarity,” said Saunders, who tells the story of Sonam Thargye.
After this 43-year old farmer self-immolated on March 17, 2012, the community in his local area of Rebkong (Tongren County in Chinese) resolved a number of disputes surrounding pastures and land and improved their relationships. In a similar show of support, many have traveled long distances to offer prayers and material support to families of those who have self-immolated.
“The responses by Tibetans across Tibet to self-immolations indicate both the significance of the actions as statements, and the developing and resolute sense of Tibetan solidarity and unity across Tibetan areas,” Saunders said. “A Tibetan described the impact of the self-immolations among Tibetans as being ‘beyond measure.’”
The impact of total self-sacrifice may be enormous, but Saunders explained that the issue of self-immolations raises a litany of perplexing questions in the context of Tibetan culture, most notably surrounding the issue of suicide.
In Tibetan thought, she said, “actions and motivations in this life have an impact on future lives…. Buddhism is against suicide. But there is a precedent in Buddhism for offering one’s body as a form of sacrifice for the benefit of others.”
In particular, Saunders points to the Mahayana Buddhist Lotus Sutra, in which contains a passage in the 23rd chapter on the Bodhisattva Medicine King who, she notes, “demonstrates his insight into the selfless nature of his body by setting his body aflame, spreading the ‘light of the Dharma’ for 1200 years.”
José Ignacio Cabezón, professor of Tibetan Buddhism and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, added that “the ancient texts also put limits on such actions. For example, the individual must be wholly motivated by compassion.” While Cabezón rightly pointed out that it is impossible to completely know the intentions or state of mind of those who self-immolate, many of their testaments left behind can be found online.
One, by Songye Tsering, who self-immolated in Qinghai province on November 17, 2012, reads: “There is no freedom in Tibet, His Holiness Dalai Lama is forbidden to return home. Panchen Lama (the second highest ranking Lama after the Dalai Lama) is in prison. We are the son of Snow Lion, the offspring of red face Tibetans. Please remember the dignity of Snow mountain.”
Indeed, Beijing has tried to crack down on the act. Last Thursday, an article in The New York Times reported that five Tibetans were arrested in China’s northwestern province of Gansu on accusations that they had goaded a wave of protesters to self-immolate last October and November. Reportedly, the instigators convinced those who set themselves alight that they would become heroes in death, said Chinese state news. Of the five arrested, four were Buddhist monks.
“While the Chinese government has sought to underplay the self-immolations, they expose a crisis in the Beijing leadership’s Tibet policy,” Saunders said. “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 authorities’ attempts to turn people against them has been a resounding failure.”
Slowly, it seems the message is leaking beyond the heavily patrolled borders of Tibet. While most Chinese remain oblivious to Tibet’s plight, the spike in self-immolations is raising awareness. At the very least, they are starting to pay attention.
On November 12, 2012, Chinese human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong (@jtyong) tweeted: “Some say the world is numb and indifferent toward Tibetans’ self-immolation. I deeply agree. Especially Han Chinese, it seems as if it is not relevant to them, or they are intentionally avoiding the problem."