On February 29th Dorjee Tsering, a 16-year old Tibetan boy set himself on fire in Dehradun. In a video recorded at the hospital Dorjee explained saying that there was nothing else he could do other than self-immolation. “If there is self-immolation, people get shocked… When they are shocked, countries like the United Kingdom, America and Africa begin to pay attention to Tibetans.” Three days later Dorjee succumbed to the wounds that covered 95% of his body. Hundreds attended his funeral service in Dharamsala and proclaimed him a hero for his sacrifice. But is this sort of glorification warranted?
Since 2009, there have been 150 cases of self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet and elsewhere. Of the 150, 8 have been exiled Tibetans primarily from regions in Nepal and India. The Chinese have repeatedly condemned these acts as being a political manoeuvers by the Dalai Lama to “wrongly” instigate foreign media and political leaders. The accusations even went to the extent of implicating the Dalai Lama and his “clique” for not just influencing but also even orchestrating the acts. However, most of the so-called “perpetrators” (immolators) have indicated that the immolations were set off by the need to encourage the Tibetans and others to rally against the tyranny of the Chinese government.
Cases of politically motivated immolations are not isolated to Tibet and the Tibetan community. The widespread democratic uprisings in the Arab world – the Arab Springs – was triggered by the self-immolation of street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi. It becomes clear that the conditions that lead to such an extreme measure are usually that of absolute social, political and economic restraint. For instance 11 of the 150 who self-immolated were former monks belonging to the Kirti Monsatery (Ngaba, Tibet) which faced increasing intrusion by the Chinese government in 2011 when troops surrounded the monastery, and prevented the supply of food and water. This physical blockade was only following years of religious oppression, including the banning of symbols and pictures of the Dalai Lama.
The image of a body going up in flames, flesh dripping from the skin, is shocking and traumatic. The evocative nature of this mode of protest although reactionary to a state of extreme oppression, is violent nonetheless. “The same energy that can cause someone to do this to himself is very close to the energy that enables someone to kill others in fury and outrage”, said the Dalai Lama. Almost all of the monks, nuns and Tibetans who set themselves alight, were his followers. Moreover, it was the Dalai Lama who strategized and propagated the middle way policy that demands for only autonomy for Tibet, not its complete independence. Inspite of this, a lot of the immolators in their final statements have called for the independence of Tibet. This obvious conflict in ideology and action signals to a chasm in what is otherwise a non-violent movement, however it only goes to show the utter desperation that the Tibetans inside Tibet feel.
The burning of the monks resulting from systemic brutality still doesn’t answer why the eight exiled Tibetans , especially second-generation Tibetan refugee – Dorjee Tsering, would take to self-immolation? Moreover, what could be the implications of revering them as martyrs? Tsering’s sister, Samten Dolma recalled him screaming “Free Tibet” and “Long Live Dalai Lama as he set himself on fire. Dorjee Tsering’s actions were solely motivated by the sympathy he felt for those living under heavy crackdown. I do not in any way intend to disrespect this selflessness, but simply point out the problems that come with the glorification of Tsering’s death. Tibetans in exile, despite their physical, economical and social hardships, have considerably more privileges – including the freedom of speech, cultural securement and education than their counterparts in Tibet. The only activists today who can reach out to the foreign media are from the refugee community. It thus becomes imperative that the refugees use this platform tactfully.
What Tibet needs today is direct action through the highest level of international governance, and more diplomats and scholars to make that appeal. What Tibet needs today is the upliftment of the exiled community to a level from where it can demand to be noticed. This cannot happen through the burning of lives, but through education that eventually propels dialogue and rhetoric. Tibetan refugees, as the only link to those living inside Tibet, should be the spokespersons of the many burnt to ashes out of sheer helplessness. As Dorjee Tsering’s grieving mother said in the funeral service, “Young Tibetans have many ways to serve their country and the Dalai Lama, our great spiritual leader. You have to study; you have to work for our country. But do not self-immolate! I appeal to you all”