The Trouble Brewing Inside Tibet
What is responsible for the unprecedented recent spate of Tibetans setting themselves afire? Over the past eight months, nine monks, former monks and a nun have immolated themselves. At least five have died, in what they have said is an attempt to send a message about dramatically deteriorating relations between Beijing and Tibetans.
Tibetan Buddhists say growing religious repression has gripped the Ngaba (sometimes called Aba) prefecture of China’s eastern Sichuan Province. The most recent incidents have occurred in Kirti Gompa, one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and the site of frequent unrest over the past three years. Ngaba County is in a state of siege, activists say.
China accuses the Dalai Lama of encouraging separatism, saying that the self-immolations are part of a plan to violently overthrow Chinese rule in Tibet. Beijing has angrily rejected any foreign interference in regard to Tibet, insisting that Tibet is an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. Authorities have imposed a news blackout and restricted access to the region, making it difficult to independently verify any information coming out of the Tibetan areas.
“In the wake of the incidents, overseas Tibet independence forces and the Dalai Lama group did not criticize the cases but on the contrary glorified such cases and incited more people to follow suit," a Chinese government spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said at a daily news briefing in Beijing. "As we know, such splittist activity at the cost of human life is violence and terrorism in disguise."
The latest self-immolation came on Oct. 17 when Tenzin Wangmo died outside the Dechen Chokorling nunnery. The 20-year-old nun before setting herself ablaze called for religious freedom, an independent Tibet and the return of their exiled spiritual head, the 14th Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
“That Tibetans feel they must resort to such a form of protest is illustrative of their desperation in the face of China’s brutal and oppressive policies,” said Stephanie Bridgen, director of Free Tibet, a London-based protest NGO. “These young Tibetans (all are under the age of 30, and many are teenagers) are willing to give their lives in order to draw international attention to China’s occupation of Tibet, one of the world’s greatest and longest-standing human rights crises.”
Observers believe the deadly pattern is linked to Chinese authorities’ strict policies and in particular the imposition of regulations in the Kirti monasteries to force ‘patriotic education” onto Tibetan monks. The monks are being urged to sign declarations supporting the Chinese Communist Party. Reports suggest the authorities have made it all but impossible for the monks to go about their normal religious lives. They have reportedly been told to slander the Dalai Lama, which has triggered fresh debate over human rights inside Tibet itself.
The other likely reason is the impasse since January 2010 over talks between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Beijing authorities. There is also fear over the succession of the current Dalai Lama. Beijing has announced its intention to choose its own reincarnation of the religious leader. In recent months a verbal war between the exiled Dalai Lama and the Communist regime has entered a new high.
At that, it is unsure if the reincarnation tradition will continue. Last month, the 76-year-old religious leader said that when he is ‘about 90’ he will consult the ‘high Lamas of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the Tibetan public, and other concerned people who follow Tibetan Buddhism, and re-evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue or not.’
“Bear in mind that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods, no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for political ends by anyone, including those in the People’s Republic of China,” the Buddhist prelate’s statement added.
“There …may be frustration contributing to the self-immolations: the inability of the Tibetan government in exile to attain negotiations with the Chinese government and therefore the lack of significant changes in the relationship between the state and monasteries, such as Kirti, where protest has been prevalent,” said Tibet expert Barry Sautman, an associate professor of social science from the Hong Kong University of Science & Technology.
Although there is no general suppression of religion in China, Sautman said, there is interference with religious practices where there is state concern about separatism, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang.
“There is a heavy security presence in most Tibetan areas, but the self-immolations have been largely confined to monks at one large monastery, Kirti Gompa, and associated small monasteries and nunneries,” he said.
“China’s policies in Tibet are aimed at cementing China’s occupation of Tibet,” the Free Tibet group told Asia Sentinel. “The Chinese Communist Party’s ruthless determination to integrate Tibet and Tibetans into the ‘Motherland’ is the root of the human rights violations, from arbitrary detentions, torture, lengthy imprisonment for ‘splittism,’ to violations of freedom of religion – including the imposition of patriotic re-education campaigns in monasteries such as Kirti, violations of freedom of expression, the systematic erosion of Tibetan as a language for public life. The Chinese regime works relentlessly to enforce loyalty to the Motherland and to eradicate loyalty to a distinct Tibetan identity which is seen as a threat to the State.”
The first reported self-immolation came of March 16, just after the third anniversary of 2008 riots when Phuntsok, a 21-year-old monk from Kirti monastery, set himself afire outside a hotel and died of his injuries. The pace began to pick up in August, with the death of another monk. In September, two young monks, both from Kirti monastery, were hospitalized in critical condition. Their whereabouts and condition are unknown. Five have immolated themselves in October, with three dying. The whereabouts and condition of the other two are unknown.
“Most Tibetans live in fear because of suppressive and unfair government policies but they dare not speak up," Tibetan writer and activist Tsering Woeser was quoted as saying. “Tibetan Buddhists can't use violence to protest; therefore they can only do violence to themselves, such as self-immolation, to make people pay attention to their situation. This is not suicide; this is sacrifice in order to draw the world's attention.”
In Dharamsala, the exile capital of Tibetans, the Dalai Lama led prayers for the victims on Oct. 19 as Tibetans tended butter lamps. Top lamas and other Tibetan settlements in exile also commemorated the self-immolations. After the prayers, young Tibetans took to the streets shouting anti-China slogans and burning China’s flag. The exiled head of one of the Kirti monastery’s sister complexes, established in Dharamsala, has described the situation in the monastery as a “virtual prison.” Elsewhere hunger strikes, candlelight vigils and protests were reported. Social networking websites are buzzing, calling for a free Tibet and trashing Beijing’s policies.
The elected political head of Tibetan exiles, Lobsang Sangay also paid tribute to the lives lost and expressed solidarity during the prayer service in which he urged China to loosen its control on Tibetan religious freedom and called on the United Nations to send fact-finding teams to the Himalayan region.
"We would like to appeal to the Chinese government to immediately stop its repressive policies in Tibet, and to resolve the issue of Tibet through peaceful means," Sangay said in a prepared statement. “Through its propaganda, Beijing shows a different image, but in reality China practices colonialism and systematic destruction of the unique Tibetan culture, religion, language, and environment because of which Tibetans have peacefully demonstrated time and again.”
China has invested heavily in developing Tibet and other areas with large Tibetan populations in the recent years, including rebuilding monasteries damaged during the Cultural Revolution. China on Oct.20 also opened a Tibet Buddhist Theological Institute, which aims to promote the study of Tibetan Buddhism, in the Tibet autonomous region. More than 600 people, including 150 newly-enrolled students as well as Buddhist delegates and government officials, attended a grand opening ceremony held in the regional capital of Lhasa, according to the state-owned news service Xinhua.
However major world powers and human right have shown serious concerns to the recent incidents believing the tension have reached a critical state. The US State Department in an Oct. 20 press briefing said that: “These acts clearly represent anger and frustration with regard to Tibetan human rights, including religious freedom, inside China. We urge Chinese leaders to address counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions; and to protect Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity,” it said.
A German Foreign Ministry spokesman said on Oct. 21 that China should ‘shape its policies to reduce the existing tension’ and also urged the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader to use his influence to stop the young nuns and monks from killing themselves.
The New York based Human Rights Watch indicates from its latest report that the conflict is partly a result of heavy-handed tactics by the security forces. Beijing’s spending on ‘public security’ in Ngaba region is 4.5 times higher the amount spent on keeping the peace in other parts of Sichuan.
Tseten Peldon Zöchbauer, an exiled Tibetan living in Vienna, says: “If the bravest (those self-immolated Tibetans inside Tibet) leave, who'll resist? I think by now most Tibetans prefer to die than to become Chinese but it is time to unite and bring the democratic world to take responsibility by urging a fact finding delegation entering most urgently to Tibet.
And while the more the Dalai Lama and Beijing are at odds given the impasse over Tibet talks and over the incarnation, the more will remain fear among the Tibetans whose fidelity for their religious head is unquestionable. Their responses of support by such demonstrations and actions appeal to the world to understand the gravity of situation inside Tibet.
(Saransh Sehgal is based in the Tibetan exile community of Dharamsala, India. He can be reached at email@example.com)