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…]