Opinion: A Burning Nun Illuminates Tibet's Agony

In the video, she stands still in a street as a car goes by. Then, like the wick of an offering lamp, her body is hardly distinguishable from the fire burning up from her. The only thing clearly visible under the burning bonfire is her unmoving feet and the end of her robe.

From such a composed posture, one can imagine that her hands must have been in a prayer position until she lost control. The sound of panicked local Tibetans praying for her is loud and urgent. But one woman walks towards the burning nun with no sign of fear and throws a Katag, a white scarf used as an offering, at the burning nun. Only just before the katag lands on the fire does gravity grab the woman, making her fall flat to the ground. The fire continues to consume her.

That is the scene of the latest Tibetan nun burning herself to protest against China’s policy on Tibet. The footage of was smuggled out of Tibet and released on social media websites last month. Local Tibetans unanimously said the wish of the nun, Palden Choetso, and 11 other Tibetan monks, former monks and another nun who self-immolated this year was to draw international attention to repressive policy practiced upon Tibetans.

What has impelled these people to take on such a horrific and painful act? The Chinese government calls it an act of terrorism. China is literally free to do whatever it likes when it comes to its conduct in Tibet. Beyond some verbal criticism thrown from a distance, the free world shows no sign of sacrificing a single yuan over Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has questioned the effect of the self-immolations. Recently when talking to the BBC, he basically called them courageous acts, but not very smart because he knew the consequences. Tibetans learned that the Chinese government has only one policy on protests in Tibet, which is to crack down by military force and then make conditions much worse. This has been a consistent policy since its takeover in 1949. For example, what China has labeled certain Kham areas “rebellious regions” where people fought against the PLA a decade after Tibet was taken over by China. Today they continue to experience mistreatment and distrust from Chinese authorities. Tourists are banned in these regions.

Since uprisings in Lhasa in the late 1980s and then again in the late 1990s to demonstrate resistance to Chinese oppression, the situation has only worsened. The slightly relaxed policy that began in the early 1980s quickly disappeared. Many religious activities that had recently been allowed, such as the Great Prayer gathering, are now gone.

The Dalai Lama’s photos have been taken away from thrones and alters in the temples and eventually from homes. Teachings for the public have been mostly prevented. Pilgrims from other Tibetan areas are often interrupted and periodically prevented from visiting their holy city. Foreign tourists were restricted and the entry permit system tightened, while the influx of Chinese settlers has visibly increased. Visiting opportunities for Tibetans from overseas to their homes and family have become harder and harder to get. The streets of Lhasa have been patrolled heavier and heavier by armed soldiers. The number of political prisoners and level of fear in the society has gone up drastically.

More and more money is being spent on “security” and the population of undercover police and spies has reached a level that now no one can trust anyone in the society, even in the monasteries. Disappearances of monks from the monasteries are often reported.

While all of this was happening in Lhasa and the Tibetan Autonomous Region, as it is called, visiting eastern regions of Tibet was easier. The Dalai Lama’s photos were free to display and could even be seen in taxicabs and buses. In some aspects, there was relatively little more tolerance in the eastern areas that are under Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, although the locals were far from being happy. A sense of discrimination compared to the Chinese population has always been there.

But when the widespread 2008 protest took place all over the Tibetan Plateau, China’s reaction was no exception. It sent soldiers with machine guns to suppress the demonstrations, most of which were only peaceful. The number of people that were killed and arrested has not yet been independently documented because international observers have not been allowed to visit, but rumors circulated within Tibetan communities in Tibet are horrifying to even mention.

Perhaps less horrifying to hear is that the family members of a political prisoner in Ganzi who was arrested in 2009 says she still has “bullets” in her body that have not been taken out after years of being in prison. Since 2008, the same kind of patriotic campaign that had been carried out in Tibet began in the eastern regions. Travel was restricted, monasteries were reportedly ordered to remove the Dalai Lama’s photos, monks began to disappear along with activists including writers and musicians.

Chinese state-run media managed to turn the Chinese public against Tibetans to such an extent that for a while even Tibetan officials who worked for the Chinese government and had been seemingly loyal to China couldn’t get hotels in China, simply because they were Tibetans. Taxis in Beijing didn’t stop for Tibetans and some Tibetans in Chengdu were kicked out of buses. Recently 3,000 Chinese students in Chengdu Railway Engineering School attacked a handful of Tibetan students, their dorms, declaring: “Beat the Tibetans and Get Extra Credit!”

These are some of the immediate consequences of protesting against China. And it is a strategic policy. “If you lift up a rock, it will fall nowhere but on your own feet,” is a mantra Chinese authorities have been telling the Tibetans.

The wounds on their feet from the “rock they lifted” in 2008 are still fresh and continue to bleed.

So why have these Tibetans undertaken such drastic measures as setting themselves on fire? I think there are two things we need to know. One is, what makes them believe that their actions will help Tibet and, two, what makes them able to conduct such unimaginable acts?

Beijing might see the easiest way of dealing with this is to blame others, for example the “Dalai Clique.” But, if Beijing bothered to pay attention, the real cause is its own outdated propaganda materials. I am not even talking about its policy that has been internationally described as the cause of the Tibetan people’s desperate situation that has driven the self-immolations, although I have no doubt that it is the immediate cause.

I am talking about China’s patriotic campaign that tells Tibetans that they have a big supporter in the West. This is lost in cultural translation that Beijing doesn’t get after six decades.

What Chinese authorities portray in the “patriotic” campaign is that the western powers led by the United States are engaging in a campaign to separate the “motherland”. This is what they teach Tibetans, particularly the monks and nuns during the infamous patriotic re-education campaigns, which have been carried out vigorously in the monasteries. For this campaign there are at least four books that monks have to read. They are designed to re-educate the Tibetans about their beliefs in religion, their leader, their worldview, and their values.

One of the books highlights how US and western powers are “urgently” trying to subvert the communist party leadership in China and change “Chinese socialism into capitalism” under the slogan of “westernization” and “splitism,”

While China has become a capitalist nation economically, such ancient propaganda is still fed to Tibetans whose only unblocked information channel is China’s state-run media and official propaganda. But what the Chinese authorities miss is that such messages are music to the ears of the Tibetans. Chinese authorities rushed to try to make Tibetans patriotic to the “motherland” before they managed to make them feel that they are members of that motherland. How can you make a people love you while you haven’t done anything to make them to forget that you’ve killed their fathers, mothers, and siblings and kicked their most beloved leader and spiritual guidance out of the country?

Tibetans have been waiting for support from the US and other Western democratic powers since the Dalai Lama and many Tibetans escaped to India. Although after many decades of not seeing any tangible changes, some start to question American support, but the majority still hold hope. After witnessing a series of protests in Lhasa in 2005 some old ladies said to the monks in the Potala Palace, “Where are the Americans? They should have been here by now even if they had been crawling on their knees.” This seems too high an expectation, but this is actually what Tibetans have been hoping for— support from the US that will free their homeland.

As early as 1969, when a rumor spread in a remote Kham area that the CIA was airdropping weapons again, immediately the local leaders mobilized men and went into mountains to wait for such weapons to be provided. The rumor later caused the execution of many of Tibet’s bravest.

But Tibetans did not lose their hope. Having the Dalai Lama in the free world and hearing the American reputation of being all about freedom and justice, the Tibetans who are known for having too much hope, still look for a better day. With such hope these monks and nuns are burning themselves.

What makes them able to burn themselves?

There is one thing that the teachings of Buddhism and communism have in common. That is, to be selfless and give up one’s own welfare or self for other’s wellbeing. In Buddhism, taking life is considered to be a fundamentally sinful action and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who discourages people from committing any form of violence, has described said this also applies to the act of taking one’s own life. However, at the same time, traditional Buddhist teaching, says giving up one’s own wellbeing and one’s own life for the wellbeing of others is also a noble act, an act of Bodhisattvas.

For a Buddhist, it is an even greater selfless act to take one’s own life because it is believed in Buddhism that taking one’s own life will have far worse consequences in their karmic circle. For example, one won’t be re-born as a human being, the highest form of life in the six realms of the cyclic existence, for many eons. This naturally goes along with the solemn dedication of the Buddha of Compassion who said, “I shall remain in the suffering world to serve others until all beings are free of suffering,” instead of moving onto nirvana.

The prayers of Bodhisattvas that Tibetans pray all the time goes something like this: “even if I had to live in the fire for hundreds of eons, may I not lose the dedication to the practice of compassion.” The greatest example of practicing compassion is about one of Buddha Shakya Muni’s previous lives where he, as a little prince, gave his body to a hungry tigress and her cubs that were about to die from hunger. This altruistic concept goes beyond sacrificing one’s own life. Another previous life of the Buddha was as a ship captain called the Great Compassionate. He killed a bandit in order to save the lives of five hundred passengers. In the old Tibet, the Tibetan government would issue decrees to protect wildlife. In this decree, killing wild animals was a crime and hunters faced heavy punishment for it. But they would give an exception for killing wolves and other beasts. According to this concept, although killing any being is bad, including a wolf, killing fewer to save the masses was justified. With such ethical views, taking one’s own life to save a culture that they believe to be beneficial for all other sentient beings cannot be argued that it is not an act of compassionate beings.

On top of such Buddhist beliefs, another campaign that the Chinese government has long been carrying out is designed to encourage people to sacrifice for the nation. But most Tibetans’ sense of nationality is not for China, but for Tibet. While Tibetans disregard most Communist teachings, some things that fit with their Buddhist beliefs have a special effect. This is the reason that there is an immense sense of nationalism towards Tibet among young Tibetans today who received their education under Chinese school systems.

The Chinese authorities—who always use whatever popular terminologies exist in the world, whether or not they have a connection to the case to accuse people who take actions against them—call these self-immolations acts of “terrorism in disguise”. However, it is an action resulted by decades long encouragement from the Chinese government itself.

The classic “learn from heroes” campaigns that bombard the society are Huang Jiguang, Dong Cunrui, An Yemin, Lei Feng and Zhang Side. Whether they were based on true stories, I don’t know. But through movies, school textbooks and posters, they have became almost as familiar as Mao himself, including to Tibetans. Huang Jinguan was a self-sacrificed hero from the Korean War. At the battle of Triangle Hills he threw himself against American machine guns to save the PLA force. Dong Cunrui held explosives against a pillbox where Nationalist fighters were blocking the PLA. The other “heroes” sacrificed their lives and wellbeing for the nation and mass. Big posters were be hung in schools and homes. Although they are no longer intrusively used today, the movies and posters are still available in market as well as online.

One may argue that many of these self-immolators were born after the era where these “heroes” watched people from every wall, but their beliefs were not isolated from their parents and society whose values of altruism are intermingled with such messages. So whether Tibetans approve self-immolation is a different story because so many are concerned that it is a waste of precious lives. But for many Tibetans, they are no lesser heroes than those for the Chinese communist party.

After she collapses flat on the ground, Palden Choetso is not yet dead. It seems she tries to lift up her head while the panicked crowed pray wildly, “pray to the Dalai Lama,” they shout at her, “May the Dalai Lama protect [your soul],” are some of words that can be identified. Her body begins to look like a hot charcoal, but the flames continue and something makes her head move slightly. The local Tibetans, some armed with sticks, surround her burning body to protect it from being taken away by officials as by this point there is no hope for her survival.

She died at the scene on November 3, but she left in the world an unforgettable mark in the measure of human courage and determination. Like Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk burned himself to death in 1963 to protest the then-South Vietnamese government’s treatment of Buddhists, Palden Choetso stood in flames without a single shift of her feet on the ground. Her determination seemed to surpass that of many of the people who burned themselves in the world this year, but perhaps she hasn’t gotten the attention she deserved from the world and the Chinese government.

Now the job of solving the Tibetan problem is being passed to new leadership and a new generation. While Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected Tibetan exile prime minister in Dharamsala, has no choice but to remain committed to nonviolence and reconciliation as is the Dalai Lama, only if Xi Jingping, or whoever is the next leader in Beijing, has a quarter of Deng Xiaoping’s courage and a sixth of Hu Yaobang’s sight to see the facts, only then the wishes of these young Tibetans self-immolating themselves be looked at and may come true.

(Yeshi Dorje is the pseudonym of a US based Tibetan-American journalist.)