(Iona Liddell & I jointly wrote this article for the South Asia Journal. Iona is a freelance writer-activist who has lived and worked in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. She writes on human rights, conflict and refugee issues in South Asia.)
The town was under complete lock down that cold January day when two young Tibetan men ducked into the courtyard of a hotel, doused their bodies in kerosene and set themselves alight. Running out into the streets of Ngaba in Sichuan province they shouted “His Holiness the Dalai Lama must return to Tibet” and “May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live for 10,000 years!” as they burned. Tennyi, a monk of Kirti monastery, died of his injuries that same day, and Tsultrim, thought to be an ex-monk of the same monastery, passed away the next day.
Tennyi and Tsultrim’s self-immolations were the first of 2012 in Tibet. There have been 23 more since then, taking the total number of self-immolations since 2009 to 38. Over that time, the image of the burning Tibetan – most often a monk or a nun, but also lay people, the young and the old – has been seared by the media into the world’s consciousness. Struck by the poignant horror of such acts, and unable to conduct field research, there has been a certain reticence amongst commentators to deal with their meaning analytically. But the self-immolations are clearly messages. Although an exhaustive statement cannot be made about what each of the self-immolations ‘means’, at the very least it can be concluded that the Tibetans who self-immolated were not content with their lot and, as the immolations were public spectacles, this discontent was sourced outside of themselves in the local socio-political context. It can thus be speculated that their acts embodied the concerns of many people in the same area.
A large majority of Tibet’s self-immolations have been carried out in Sichuan province, outside the Chinese-designated Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). At a talk on the 18th May of 2012 at the London School of Economics (LSE), Tibetan scholar Tsering Shakya argued that this is in part due to relatively more liberal security policies outside of the TAR as well as the specific dynamics at play in that “very localised context”. After protests had covered large swathes of the Tibetan areas in 2008, the Chinese government identified Ngaba town as a sensitive area due to the existence of Kirti monastery – a stronghold of Tibetan culture and religion with substantial sway in the surrounding areas. The resulting security clampdown on the town is still ongoing, with military checkpoints every 30 to 40 metres along the street. Monks and nuns have been forced to undergo intensive patriotic reeducation classes during which they are pressured to regularly denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Frequent news stories in the local press also serve to malign him publicly. Shakya believes it is highly plausible that these local dynamics have engendered the spate of self-immolations. At LSE he stressed that reading the self-immolations as part of a pan-Tibetan struggle – as many have, including audience members that day – is too assumptive an analysis at present, likely more suited to exile Tibetans’ desire to see a political movement building than to the, as yet unstudied, lived realities on the ground.
But, just over two weeks later, on the 27th of May 2012 two self-immolations in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, significantly changed the dynamic. They were carried out at the heart of old Lhasa outside the Jokhang temple– an important place of pilgrimage for Tibetans from across the plateau, which has also been the site of previous protests by Tibetans against the Chinese rule. In March 2008, a group of monks staged a non-violent protest there which spread to Tibetan areas outside the TAR and triggered a nationwide uprising. In a place like Lhasa where ideas of Tibetan identity and political autonomy coalesce, the overt political symbolism of these self-immolations could not go unnoticed. In their aftermath, Tibetologist Robert Barnett told media that Lhasa was in a “boiling situation” with the Chinese authorities “really worried” because of the sense that these acts were clearly “driven by an idea, a political goal.” Such concern led them to arrest over 600 Tibetans in the self-immolations’ tense aftermath.
The Lhasa self-immolations have brought the act beyond local contexts, revealing it to be part of a wider social and political struggle by Tibetans both against the oppression of the Chinese state, and for an assertion of their cultural and political identity, manifested in calls for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet. Thus, the on-going cycle of self-immolations can no longer be detached from the larger socio-political context and downplayed as a local phenomenon triggered by local circumstances. The dynamics which have led to their form and occurrence are in part regional. From the historical to the political to the social, these self-immolations involve South Asia.
For centuries prior to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951, the inhabitants of the Himalayas had met across the present-day borders, trading, inter-marrying, exchanging cultural practices and religious beliefs. A famous shared son of the Himalayas was born round 2500 years ago, in what is now southern Nepal. Siddartha Gautam travelled, learned, meditated and finally gained enlightenment as the Buddha in present-day northern India. 1000 years later, his teachings crossed the Himalayas to Tibet, to the court of King Songtsen Gampo. It is said that Gampo’s two wives – Chinese and Nepalese princesses – encouraged the King to adopt Buddhism. So began a series of religious exchanges that were to extend over centuries as a result of journeys undertaken by Indian and Tibetan monks and sages, bringing depth, widespread adherence and, at times, resurgence to Tibetan Buddhism throughout the Himalayan range. Compassion is a central tenet of the teachings. In one incarnation, the Buddha came across a starving tiger and, seeing she was on the verge of eating her young cubs, sacrificed his own life instead, his pure intentions overriding the sin of suicide. In testimony to this flow of ideas, prayer flags now fly from the lake sides of Ladakh in the north of the range, to the bridges of Bhutan in the south. Cultural practices that developed alongside the religion and as a result of intermarriage along trade routes left a sense of shared identity amongst the inhabitants of the Himalayas. So it was that in 1910 the 13th Dalai Lama, when threatened by the then neighbouring Chinese administration, was able to take temporary refuge in a sympathetic India. In 1959, after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, the 14th Dalai Lama and thousands of other Tibetans fled Tibet, and were granted refuge in India by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Since then, on average between two to four thousand Tibetans have escaped repressive Chinese rule annually. Thanks to Nehru’s initial support for the Dalai Lama, Tibetans have been able to establish a government in exile and set up substantial refugee settlements with the support of the host countries and a range of international nongovernmental organizations. The exile government estimates that today around 109,000 Tibetans live in South Asia – making it the largest concentration of Tibetans outside Tibet. The circular motion of ideas and actions that occurred between Buddhist scholars back at the forging of Tibetan Buddhism now finds repetition in a circle of ideas which move between Tibet and South Asian countries who play host to Tibetan refugees.
News of self-immolations is most often broken to the world’s media from the Indian town of Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh – Tibet’s capital in exile. There Tibetan monks and laypeople work hard against China’s firewalls, radio jamming and phone surveillance and black-outs in order to maintain communication with those inside Tibet. For example, Kirti monastery’s sister establishment in India, populated mostly by monks from Tibet, has become a lifeline for information regarding the self-immolations in Ngaba. When it comes, the news prompts mass mourning and international media coverage. But the self-immolations are not restricted to Tibet. On 26th March 2012, Jamphel Yeshi fatally self-immolated on Indian soil on the eve of Hu Jinato’s visit to Delhi for the BRICS summit. In 1998, again in Delhi, Thubten Ngodup was the first recorded Tibetan to self-immolate, doing so to bring awareness to the Tibetan situation – this time in the context of a Tibetan hunger strike in Delhi which was being broken up by India authorities. As such, it is important to view Tibetan self-immolations as part of a continuing Tibetan struggle. This is reinforced by the fact that the few recorded last statements of some of the self-immolators compellingly call for a wider sense of Tibetan unity.
Respected Buddhist Lama Sopa Rinpoche, 40 years and thus one of the older self-immolators, said: “To all my spiritual brothers and sisters, and the faithful ones living elsewhere: You must unite and work together to build a strong and prosperous Tibetan nation in the future. This is the sole wish of all the Tibetan heroes. Therefore, you must avoid any quarreling amongst yourselves…You must maintain unity and strength.” Similarly, Jamphel Yeshi, originally from Eastern Tibet but who set himself alight in Delhi, had this to say: “My fellow Tibetans! If you care about your happiness and future, you must have the spirit of patriotism. Patriotism is the soul of a nation. Moreover, it is the confidence in search of truth; and also the harbinger of a happy future.”
As UK-based Tibetan scholar Tsering Topgyal propounds, the self-immolations can be seen to exist at one end of a spectrum of strategic resistance – predominantly nonviolent - that Tibetans have been engaging in for decades, and increasingly so from 2008 onwards. “Whether [Tibetans in Tibet] are self-immolating, writing poems, taking to peaceful protest on the streets or posting a blog, they are mostly speaking about Tibetan rights, they have the same goals and aspirations.”
With Chinese authorities clamping down heavily upon conventional protests and demonstrations, especially in the aftermath of the pan-Tibetan uprising of 2008, a large number of disaffected Tibetans in the TAR and the adjoining Tibetan areas, have turned to forms of defiance which are largely non-confrontational and centred around a sense of their common heritage and identity. This home-grown national self-awareness and non-cooperation movement, popularly known as Lhakar, is aimed at countering Beijing’s intensified efforts in recent years to systematically undermine Tibetan people’s distinct culture, language and identity.
The Tibetan word “Lhakar” literally translates as “White Wednesday”; Wednesday is an auspicious day for Tibetans because it is, according to Tibetan astrology, the Dalai Lama’s soul day (lah-sah). As Lhakar provides a discreet avenue for people to express their loyalty towards the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause in an implicit manner without attracting harsh punitive consequences, Tibetans from all walks of life have enthusiastically embraced it as a form of strategic nonviolent resistance against what they see as Chinese government’s relentless onslaught on everything Tibetan under the sun.
Thus, Wednesdays for Tibetans have, in many ways, become synonymous with their struggle for survival as a nation and culture. An increasing number of Tibetans, especially the youths, are now asserting their “Tibetan-ness” by donning Tibetan attire and promoting Tibetan cuisine. Whilst some Tibetans are adopting vegetarianism and keeping fasts, many others are taking pledges to converse and write in the Tibetan language on a regular basis, and avoiding the use of Mandarin with fellow Tibetans. Intellectuals and individuals with creative skills are using social media, blogs and music to explicate what being a Tibetan means and entails today. One such example is a composition by a young musician from eastern Tibet which has become somewhat of an anthem amongst Tibetans on either side of the Himalayas:
We are the kin of the same parentage
We are the inheritors of one nation
O ruddy faced Tibetans!
Though seemingly benign, these are gestures of profound symbolic significance for Tibetans both within Tibet and without. And what they have cumulatively done is further consolidate the sense of unity and common purpose fostered by the 2008 uprising.
Notably, in many Tibetan areas, Lhakar has sparked other acts of civil disobedience. For instance, early last year, Tibetans in Nangchen county, Qinghai province decided to completely boycott Chinese vegetable and grocery stores to protest against skyrocketing prices of commodities. Locals there are now reportedly purchasing all their supplies from delegated Tibetan vendors and at much lower prices. There have been reports of such boycotts spreading to adjoining Tibetan areas as well. Similarly, in a show of open defiance, Tibetan monks in Lithang county, Sichuan province ignored orders from local authorities and enthroned a life-size portrait of the Dalai Lama during a religious gathering in July 2011 attended by more than 5,000 devotees representing all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon tradition. Likewise, in October 2010, between 5,000 to 9,000 high school students from six different schools took to the streets of Tongren, Qinghai province to protest against the Chinese government’s plans to curb the use of the Tibetan language in their classrooms. Since then similar language protests have occurred in other neighbouring Tibetan areas, with the latest protest reported in March of this year. Also worthy of mention here are the mass burnings of garments made from animal fur in various parts of Tibet in response to the Dalai Lama’s appeal in 2006 against the use of tiger and leopard skins by some Tibetans for ornamental purposeswhich, conservationists say, was spurring illegal trade in animal fur and adversely affecting wildlife projects in South Asia and elsewhere. These mass fur-burnings were much more about being able to demonstrate allegiance to the Dalai Lama over the Chinese State than about ecological concerns.
This ongoing identity-driven, civil disobedience movement inside Tibet – which is seen by many as a new chapter in the Tibetan people’s five-decade old struggle for greater freedom – has ample historical antecedents in South Asia, in particular the Indian independence movement. It is not hard to see the parallels between Lhakar and Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi movement launched in 1921. For one, both these movements were initiated in the aftermath of two very similar historical events -the Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 1919 and the pan-Tibetan uprising of 2008. There are very potent indications that the Tibetans inside Tibet are coopting elements of Gandhi’s non-cooperation and Satyagraha movements and employing them to remonstrate against the PRC’s oppressive policies in their land.
Given that there has always been a two-way dissemination of ideas and influences across the Himalayas, it is hardly surprising that, in the face of oppression, Tibetans inside Tibet are emulating the path of strategic nonviolent resistance which was pioneered against colonialism by a highly esteemed South Asian leader. This two-way dissemination of ideas, in recent decades, has been facilitated by the sizeable Tibetan Diaspora in South Asian countries such as India, Nepal and Bhutan. In fact, the exile community in South Asia has often acted as a conduit for the diffusion of various socio-political trends from across the globe through communication devices, news output or through the many Tibetans who have returned to family in Tibet after education or time spent in exile. With regard to the Lhakar Movement in Tibet, one could argue that certain acts of non-cooperation such as the boycott of Chinese businesses by Tibetans in Qinghai province may have been inspired by similar campaigns to boycott “Made in China” products launched by the leaders of the exile community in the early 1980s. That said, it must be emphasized that Lhakar, as a movement, has its origins inside Tibet. It was only after the movement started gaining momentum within Tibet that the Tibetan Diaspora in South Asia and elsewhere began initiating parallel campaigns to express solidarity with their compatriots back home. Incidentally, this has sparked a hitherto unseen fascination regarding Tibetan culture and identity especially among third generation Tibetans, and engendered an analogous cultural resurgence outside Tibet.
Such resurgence is reflected throughout the democracies of Himalayan South Asia, where, in stark contrast to Tibet, Himalayan cultures and languages have been able to flourish. In late 2011, Himalayan Buddhists gathered for a conference on the Nepali plains, at Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha. Australian Tibetologist Gabriel Lafitte noted its significance in creating a renewed sense of “heartfelt” identity amongst Himalayan peoples of Tibetan origin “and thus to a wider concept of Tibet as the spiritual home”. Significantly, the conference had the support of 17 members of Nepal’s parliament, including the Deputy Prime Minister, Vijay Kumar Gacchadhar, who attended as Chief guest. Events like this are manifestations of a growing sense of awareness in recent years among Himalayan peoples such as Sherpas, Tamangs, Bhutias, Ladakhis, Spitians, Bhutanese, Dompos, Monpas and others about their shared Tibetan heritage. Not surprisingly, these peoples, along with thousands of non-Himalayan Nepalese and Indians, form the core support base for Tibetans in South Asia. The Burmese people, with whom Tibetans share both cultural traits and a history of oppression, have also been very forthcoming in their support for the Tibetan cause. In fact, just days after protests broke out in Lhasa in March 2008, the All Burma Monks Alliance, an underground monk’s organization inside Burma founded in September 2007 during what is dubbed as the “Saffron Revolution”, and the International Burmese Monks Organization issued separate statements in support of Tibetan monks and condemned the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators.
Of all the South Asian states, the public level support for the Tibetan cause may well be most vocal in India. Given that the Tibetan movement has such strong similarities with the Gandhian ideas and strategies of India’s independence movement, a large number of Indian citizens can identify with it. For instance, during the recently concluded BRICS summit in New Delhi, many prominent Indians especially from the Himalayan region and the North East expressed their outrage over racial profiling and preventive custody of Tibetans and “Tibetan-looking” Indian citizens by the authorities. In a show of sympathy, Union Minister Agatha Sangma who hails from the Indian state of Meghalaya in the northeast told reporters that Tibetans like everyone else should have the right to protest peacefully on Indian soil. Similarly, in 2008, Bhaichung Bhutia, the then captain of the Indian National Football team refused to carry the Olympic torch during the India leg of its journey to voice his support for the people of Tibet and their struggle.
Yet despite the public-level solidarity which is extended to Tibetans in South Asia, this has not translated into real political support. The Chinese government is sensitive to the fact that recognition of strong shared cultures and histories across the Himalayas negates its meta-narrative that Tibet has always been a part of China. This sensitivity is greatly increased by the fact that, until recently, Tibetan refugees residing in South Asian countries have been able to use their relative freedom to non-violently call for change in the Tibetan situation. The Tibetan uprising in 2008 sparked solidarity protests across the world, led by Tibetan exiles. These reached a height in Delhi, Dharamsala and Kathmandu where, daily, Tibetan refugees raised their voices against the regime on the other side of the Himalayas. Beijing is well aware that despite its closed borders and restricted communications, furtive connections on telephones and the internet, international news broadcasts, as well as refugees and returnees enable ideas to cross the physical and technological barriers that surround Tibet, allowing those inside, and the refugees outside to share in and shape one movement.
Shaken by the 2008 uprising, Beijing has since viewed Tibetan refugee activity as a serious threat to China’s political integrity. In a conscious move to mitigate this threat, China has firmly centred its political negotiations with northern South Asia on the issue of Tibet. Indeed, China’s interest in joining SAARC as an observer state, prominent Tibetan commentator Bhuchung K Tsering notes, is to be able to have more leverage on how South Asian countries deal with Tibet. Both politically and geographically, China now meets South Asia through the prism of Tibet.
China’s rise to the echelons of superpower means that over the past few years, the democratic ideals of Nepal, Bhutan and India have been strongly tested by a Chinese government keen to see adherence to a ‘One China’ policy, wherein states publicly support the concept of China’s territorial sovereignty. In order to prove their commitment to this policy, China uses considerable political pressure, soft power and financial incentives to encourage states bordering Tibet to stem the Tibetan refugee flow, and silence Tibetan refugee communities. As a result, where once they were safe havens, India, Bhutan and Nepal have become increasingly restrictive in their treatment of Tibetans.
This is most evident in Nepal, which is the least stable of the three Himalayan states, and receives the majority of new arrival Tibetan refugees. A decade-long conflict that ended in 2006, and the years of political turbulence which have followed gave Beijing opportunities to assert itself in Nepal’s internal affairs. After the conflict, China switched from providing arms to the Nepal Army to funding infrastructure projects and providing aid. In return, China asks for only one thing, a demonstrated commitment to stopping “anti-China” activities, in adherence with a One-China policy. The freedoms which Tibetan refugees once enjoyed in Nepal have been dramatically reduced as a result. In correlation with China’s funding of Nepal’s security forces, with the express command to quell “anti-China’ activities, the rates and lengths of detentions of Tibetan refugees have soared. Tibetans report being harassed and detained by police at protests, but also at cultural events and, often, seemingly, for no reason at all bar political expediency. In January 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao touched down into Kathmandu for a state visit – the highest level such visit in a decade – that lasted less than 5 hours. On the day before the visit, over 200 Tibetans were rounded up and detained, only to be later released without charge. While these Tibetans languished in detention, Wen Jiabao made clear China’s determined engagement with Nepal by announcing an increase in development aid to $119 million this year. The figure was just $128,200 in fiscal year 2005/6.
Though a stronger state, India too has often capitulated to Chinese pressure with regard to Tibetans. This was apparent in the run up to the BRICS summit in April this year when the Indian authorities cordoned off Tibetan colonies and hostels in and around Delhi and preemptively detained hundreds of Tibetan activists and students. But India has always walked a fine line on the issue of Tibet, its actions largely motivated by long-standing geopolitical concerns. A major factor in Sino-Indian relations is the 3,380 km long shared border that is disputed by both sides and along which numerous Chinese incursions have been reported in recent times. India claims that China has illegally occupied the Aksai Chin area bordering Tibet in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and China in turn lays claim on the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which it refers to as “South Tibet”, and also parts of Sikkim. Ironically, much of this border was already demarcated via a bilateral agreement between British India and the then independent state of Tibet in 1914. India inherited this agreement on its independence in 1947 but the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1951 complicated the equation. So, to resolve this longstanding border issue, the two Asian giants have had several rounds of talks since the 1980s. But China has often made its participation in such talks conditional upon New Delhi restricting the activities of what it calls “splittist” elements from its territory. For example, in November 2011, Beijing pulled out of what was to be the 15th round of border talks between the Special Representatives of the two countries when New Delhi refused to call off a congregation of religious leaders and scholars in the Indian capital that was to be addressed by the Dalai Lama. Thus, India’s imposition of increased restriction on the political activities of exiled Tibetans in recent times should be viewed within this larger geopolitical context. Tibetans still greatly benefit from India’s hospitality, but are increasingly becoming a pawn in their political game with China.
In contrast to India, other less developed South Asian states like Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma have readily echoed China’s position on Tibet and helped further Beijing’s agenda in South Asia. But these countries themselves are not immune to the adverse consequences of China’s presence in Tibet. The livelihoods of millions of people in South Asia depend upon rivers originating in Tibet. Chinese proposals to divert these rivers and build multiple dams on them are likely to hit them the hardest. As such, Beijing’s mismanagement of Tibetan rivers has the potential to disrupt economic activity in the whole of South Asia and trigger unprecedented social unrest in the region, far beyond Tibet.
Which brings us back to the messages that are the self-immolations. Taking into account all the connections, Tibet is, in many ways, a South Asian nation. South Asians, having had such close connections with Tibetan people, are perhaps better equipped than most nations to ‘read’ the situation inside Tibet. But as South Asian states respond to the current geopolitical context by strengthening economic and political relationships with China rather than speaking up for their oppressed brethren, the trade-off is increased Chinese influence over their internal and external policies. Given that China also exerts control over South Asia’s water and threatens its northern states’ borders, that some Tibetans have gone to the lengths of setting themselves on fire to draw attention to their plight under Chinese rule is both a warning and an appeal, which South Asia – both public and political – would do well to heed.