Mainstream media and Tibetan Self-Immolations

The number of Tibetans who have self-immolated crossed 50 last week as the struggle against the Chinese rule inside Tibet continues unabated. Since 2009, the same ghastly image of a burning Tibetan, most likely to be a monk or a nun in his or her 20s, has been repeating ad infinitum on the Tibetan plateau.

The global media, however, has remained relatively silent, even though the reports and images of the self-immolations have spread among social networking sites, generating both controversy and confusion.

The media's relatively muted coverage partly explains the lack of international response to the crisis unfolding inside Tibet. Scholars have often pointed out the correlation between media coverage of international events with the foreign policy priorities of the given nations.

Does the lack of coverage shows the Western world’s relative lack of direct material stake in Tibet and the growing influence of China? Or is it because Tibet is simply inaccessible to journalists, practically locked down to outside observers?

Such incidents have historically gained much bigger coverage in the past. The case of self-immolation of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who died protesting against the persecution of Buddhists by Vietnamese Roman Catholics in 1963 was reported by The New York Times – filed by its noted correspondent David Halberstarm – on the front page for several days.

In the case of Tibet, British papers have so far been slightly better, with the Guardian and the Economist writing about the issue. It is not Western writers who have written about it, however. Author Patrick French was one of the first to write about self-immolation in the context of Tibet when he opened his book Tibet, Tibet: The Personal History of a Lost Land with the image of Tibetan Thupten Ngodup who killed himself in 1998 in New Delhi, protesting against the Chinese rule in Tibet (“turning the violence inwards, killing himself and protecting others.”)

In the meantime, the Tibetan leadership based in exile is caught between a rock and a hard place. Supporting self-immolators send a major ripple effect across the Tibetan communities while the opposite is seen as insensitive if not weak by the Tibetan people.

"We have made several appeals to Tibetan people not to resort to drastic actions like self-immolation but it continues today,” said Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. “It brings sadness to Tibetan people and as Buddhists we pray for them."

Such measured responses by the Tibetan leadership have not gone down well with some segments of the Tibetan cause. Yet both the Tibetan leadership and the Tibetan people remain unified in their concern over the Western mainstream media’s indifference over the Tibetan fiasco.

The media’s role in highlighting the situation inside Tibet is not to be underestimated, particularly if seen from the critical role played by the press and social networking sites during the revolt in the Middle East. The death of Tunisian Mohammed Boazizi and media reports of it touched off the Arab Spring. There is a definite link between the media’s silence on Tibetan self-immolations and the lack of international response towards it. (The economist Amartya Sen, for instance, had noted how famines have never occurred in a functioning democracy with a vibrant media.)

Quite ironically, the mainstream media’s mild response shows precisely why Tibetans were forced to take such drastic measures to win sympathy for their cause, as suggested the title of the Prime Minister Sangay’s own op-ed piece in the Washington Post in June of this year – headlined “For Tibetans, No Other Way of Protest.”

“Denied the right to less extreme forms of protest,” he wrote in the piece. “Tibetans are setting fire to themselves as political action.”

Indeed, much discussion centers around whether the self-immolation is a religious ritual or political protest as illustrated by a seminar organized by a consortium of French Asian-studies departments in Paris in May 2012: “Tibet Burning: Ritual or a Political Protest?”

Both it seems are true. But the question why the self-immolation is occurring is less important than asking what effects they are likely to have. And for outside observers, it is of course difficult to understand the exact motivation of the self-immolators.

Except for the letters left behind by the protesters, it is hard to access the thoughts of those carrying out self-immolation. Nonetheless, the commonplace thesis is that for Buddhist Tibetans, denied any recourse to protest, self-immolation offers the easiest means of non-violent political protest.

“Traditionally, ascetic practice targeted an inner enemy: selfish clinging, vanity, enmity,” wrote a professor of Tibetan Buddhism Janet Gyatso of Harvard University in journal Cultural Anthropology, earlier this year. “Today the target of Tibet’s recent self-immolations is an outer enemy: an intrusive, repressive, unsympathetic state.”

Yet the state is not an easy enemy. Pictures on the Internet blogs show masses of Chinese policeman walking around Lhasa armed with fire extinguishers, aimed to deny the Tibetan protesters the right to determine their own death.

Luckily, as the cases of self-immolations in Tibet grow, there has been a slight increase in media coverage. Reports also point out that situation might change for the better with the upcoming leadership shuffle in China. Also on September 1, China announced Ling Jihua, an ally of president Hu Jintao would take over the powerful United Front Department, the body in charge of dealing with negotiations with the representatives of the Dalai Lama.

Observers believe it is too early to say if Ling could break the impasse in China-Tibet negotiations that had persisted under his hard-line predecessor Du Qinglin.

A change in key leadership has also taken place in Tibet’s exile government. Earlier this year, the Dalai Lama’s long-time envoys to Beijing, Gyari Lodro Gyaltsen and Kyalsang Gyaltsen have stepped down – and the Tibetan administration is yet to fill in the vacated posts. Later this month, members of the exiled Tibetan community are to gather in Dharamsala to brainstorm how best to move forward with their negotiations with China and map out a unified response to the crisis unfolding inside Tibet.

The media is a powerful force of political change – as we saw in the Middle East and elsewhere – and its role could not be emphasized more, especially in a place as heavily censored as Tibet.

(The writer is a Tibetan writer and journalist based in the US.)

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