How many self-immolating Tibetans does it take to make a difference?

Ishaan Tharoor reports: On Wednesday morning in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, a Tibetan monk drenched in gasoline appeared in front of a Buddhist stupa popular among Tibetans and set himself aflame. At the time of writing, the young man, thought to be in his early 20s, is in critical condition. According to some reports, his fiery protest marks a grim milestone: it’s the 100th such self-immolation by a Tibetan to happen since 2009 (others suggest it’s the 99th or the 101st).

Whatever the ghastly metric, the act has become the signature tactic in recent years of Tibetans voicing their frustrations with Chinese rule. It carries a haunting moral cry no suicide bomber can match. When one downtrodden Tunisian set himself alight in December 2010, the spark of his despair and anger kindled uprisings that swept across the Arab world. Yet, 100 Tibetan self-immolations — and many deaths — later, little has changed.

Part of the problem is where these protests occur. The overwhelming majority takes place within the borders of China, either in Tibet proper or in Tibetan areas of neighboring Sichuan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces. Media access is heavily controlled and much of what we know comes from advocacy groups based outside. A white paper titled “Why Tibet Is Burning,” released last month by an institute affiliated with the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, identifies by name 98 Tibetans who carried out self-immolations in China since February 2009. Many of those choosing to set themselves on fire are young teenagers and 20-somethings. They are farmers and aspiring clerics, nomads and students. In a foreword to the study, Lobsang Sangay, the democratically elected Prime Minister of Tibet’s exiles, urges Tibetans to “not to resort to drastic actions, including self-immolations, because life is precious.” But the study goes on to point the finger at Beijing:

The reason [for all the self-immolations] lies in China’s massive policy failure in Tibet over the course of more than 60 years of its rule. The revolution that is brewing in Tibet is driven by political repression, cultural assimilation, social discrimination, economic marginalization and environmental destruction.

China, of course, doesn’t see it this way. The likelihood of a Tibetan revolution — or even the rioting of not so long ago — is dwarfed by the specter of a Beijing crackdown. Authorities have already started detaining and jailing Tibetans they claim are “inciting” self-immolations; one such swoop earlier this month in the rugged province of Qinghai netted 70 suspects. Quoted by Chinese state media, a local official echoed China’s longstanding critique of any Tibetan dissent: “The Dalai Lama clique masterminded and incited the self-immolations. Personal information, such as photos of the victims, were sent overseas to promote the self-immolations.”

The Dalai Lama, the increasingly withdrawn spiritual leader of Tibetans-in-exile, has long promoted a “middle way” of dialogue and nonviolent resistance, and has also urged against Tibetans carrying out self-immolations. According to a BBC report last year, the steady toll of self-immolations was being interpreted by some angry Tibetans overseas as a sign that the Dalai Lama’s timid, largely failed policies of engagement ought to be given up. “Violence could now be the only option,” said one influential Tibetan activist to the BBC. [Continue reading…]

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One thought on “How many self-immolating Tibetans does it take to make a difference?

  1. gantal

    Do we care about what the majority of real Tibetans think?

    Apparently not. Rarely do their opinions (or the opinions of Chinese citizens for that matter) come into the equation when speaking about Sino-Tibetan issues. It’s taken as a given that they all want independence. That all of their lives are far worse under Chinese “occupation” than it was under the Dalai Lama’s Shangrila Kingdom. Westerners likely take the viewpoints of Tibetan emigres as a representative sample of 5.8 million Tibetans inside Tibet. But they are no more representative than are Cuban émigrés in Florida representative of Cubans’ opinions in Cuba.

    Granted, there’s little objective evidence (other than the anecdotal evidence from travelers) as surveys are rarely conducted inside Tibet. But I know of two that polls ethnic Tibetans inside Tibet for their views. But what are their views?

    In a survey conducted in 2000 by the renowned Tibetologists Melvyn Goldstein, Cynthia Beall, Ben Jiao and Phuntsog Tsering, they asked a sample of Tibetans from across the TAR whether their lives are better than that of their parents: “Do You Have a Better Life Now Than Your Parents Did?” One of the cohorts of that sample (N=150) is the age group between 60-79. In 2000, that means that they were born roughly between 1920-1940. That means their parents lived almost entirely before Chinese policies were instituted after 1959.

    An astounding ~90% answered “Yes,” that is, their lives are indeed better than that of their parents.

    So it would appear that the Dalai Lama’s claim (which the west accepts unquestioningly) that China had turned Tibetan “heaven on earth” to a “hell on earth” is, like many other claims about China and Tibet in the west, absolute rubbish.

    But what about the question of independence? Well, that study did not directly question Tibetans on that thorny issue but one study conducted secretly by the Tibetan Government in Exile did–shortly after the ’08 March riots. Here, it looks that Tibetans inside Tibet who want independence (renzig) are in the minority (29% or about 5,000 out of a total sample of about 17,000).

    This survey was likely crucial in getting the TGIE to stick with the so-called “middle way approach” after the riots, when they actively questioned that approach and contemplated seeking independence.

    Keep in mind that this study was conducted BY the TGIE and so questions of pro-China bias does not arise. Also, more importantly, keep in mind that this study was done soon after the ’08 riots when tempers were flaring and the desire for independence was likely at its zenith inside Tibet. So if only 29% of Tibetans want independence, at most shortly after the Tibetan riots, that figure is likely lower today.

    Here as elsewhere, the opinions of people actually part of the issue is dropped from the discussion in the west’s narrative. It is only our (white folks’) opinions that count speaking on behalf of everyone else.

    Sure the evidence is sparse from only two studies but studies like this are still better than conjecture and carefully-chosen anecdote. I wonder what you’d find if you polled Native Hawaiians or the Lakota Indians for their views on whether they want their territories to be an independent state from the US?

    FOOTNOTE: Yes, the No. 1 Party Secretary is not a Tibetan. But then in all China, the No. 1 Party Secretary of a Province is never a person of or from the Province. This is to discourage local nationalism or provincialism, which was prevalent and led to regional warlordism from 1911 to 1949.

    NOTE: Now the TGIE study did find that a plural majority (about 47% or 8,000) of respondents wanted to the Middle Way approach of Tibet remaining as part of China but with limited “true autonomy” (the 4,000 or so rest of the sample either wanted the status quo to remain or did not have an opinion). But also keep in mind that the Chinese government offered the Dalai Lama a middle way approach for the autonomy for the TAR in the early ’80s but due to his intractable demands that even parts of Gansu, Sichuan, and other historically multi-ethnic provinces be included as “Tibet,” the deal fell through.]

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