Forbes, Oct 28, 2013


Immolations In Tibet: The Shame Of The World



In February 2009, Tapey, a young Tibetan monk in the Kirti Monastery in Ngaba upset because prayer ceremonies were canceled at his monastery, doused himself in gas, walked to an intersection and set himself on fire while holding a home-made Tibetan flag with a photo of the Dalai Lama on it. People’s Armed Police standing nearby opened fire and shot the monk, and then took him away. He survived, but his whereabouts remain unknown.

Tsering Woeser, a prominent Tibetan poet and commentator, reported the incident in her blog. Over the next four years, she would record a total of 126 incidents of Tibetans setting themselves on fire to express their dissatisfaction with Chinese rule—one more incident occurred following publication.

In her latest book, Immolations au Tibet, La Honte du Monde, or Immolations in Tibet: The Shame of the World, Woeser describes in detail the background to this sad trend.

This slim book, running just 40,000 French words (English and Chinese versions will follow), was written between April and June of this year. Woeser provides statistics, the reasons for the self-immolations, and final testimonies, and she explains China’s attempts to spin this phenomenon in a way that does not reflect badly on the government’s rule of Tibet.

The topic is highly sensitive and the Chinese have made a huge effort to suppress discussion of it. Woeser says hat National Security agents warned her not to write any books about this topic, a threat she bravely ignored.

She is angered that the Chinese media portrays the self-immolators as criminals, alcoholics, gamblers, mentally ill, prostitutes or those manipulated by the “Dalai Lama clique”, a disparaging term the government uses to describe Tibet’s spiritual leader.

Woeser says that Tibetans consider self-immolators heroes, placing their photos respectfully in their homes and monasteries and writing songs in praise of them.

The incidents cut across all sectors of Tibetan society. Of the 125 cases recorded by Woeser, 104 people died as a result of setting fire to themselves. There was one case in 2009, 14 in 2011, 86 in 2012 and 25 so far this year—one more incident occurred after publication. The oldest person was 64, the youngest 16, with an average age of 26. There were 106 men and 18 women, including 21 fathers and 10 mothers. There were 42 religious people, including three rinpoches, or incarnate lamas, as well as 63 herders, three laborers, a carpenter, blogger, tanka artist, taxi driver, forestry worker and a former Communist Party cadre. Two were middle school female students, three were male students.

One of the most compelling parts of this book is the analysis of the 46 final testimonies that Woeser has collected, which gives a clear picture of the motives. The testimonies, some of which run just a few words, include hand-written notes, recordings, and verbal statements told to friends and relatives.

According to bystanders who witnessed people setting fire to themselves, some 50 shouted political slogans as they burned, including, “Allow His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet,” “Tibet will be free,” and Tibetan independence.”

The Chinese government has accused the Dalai Lama of instigating the suicide attempts in an attempt to separate Tibet from China.

Woeser counters that the self-immolations are the result of a sharp increase in suppression of Tibetan religious and political freedoms that has not been seen in years. She points to human monitors embedded in monasteries, forced “patriotic education,” monks forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama or face expulsion from monasteries and possible arrest, and nomads pushed off of their grassland homes, ostensibly to save the deteriorating environment. She says monasteries have been forced to fly Chinese national flags and to hang photos of Communist Party officials, while house-to-house searches are carried out to confiscate photographs of the well-respected Tibetan spiritual leader.