A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[LINK] “141: For Tsepey Who Self-Immolated in Tibet Six Hours From Now”

Savage Minds’ Carole McGranahan has a terribly sad essay, with photos of victims and maps of their distribution, about Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. Tsepey, mentioned in the title of her essay, is the 141st to do so.

141 Tibetans have chosen to self-immolate, to set themselves on fire with the intention of dying. The first was Thubten Ngodup in 1998, who self-immolated on the 49th day of a Tibetan hunger strike in Delhi, India. The next was eight years later in 2006 when Lhakpa Tsering immolated in Mumbai. Then in 2009, the first self-immolation inside Tibet: a young monk named Tapey from Kirti Monastery who self-immolated the year after a brutal attack on the local community by Chinese security forces, and ensuing crackdowns on religion. After Tapey, another 133 have self-immolated. Offered themselves through fire as Tibetans often phrase it. One-third of these were religious figures, monks, nuns, and even reincarnate lamas. The rest were ordinary people—students, farmers, nomads, workers. They were sons and daughters, husbands and wives. They were parents. They were ages 16-64, but were overwhelmingly young men in their late teens and early twenties. Seven Tibetans have self-immolated in India or Nepal, one woman self-immolated in Beijing, but the rest have done so in Tibet itself: 133 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet under the People’s Republic of China.

Why are Tibetans self-immolating? Answering this question requires a brief history lesson: in 1949 Mao Zedong’s communist army defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist army. One of the first things Mao said he would do was liberate Tibet. He was true to his word, invading Tibet and forcing a political agreement with the Dalai Lama’s government in 1951 that made Tibet a part of the People’s Republic of China. Tibetans initially tried to cooperate with the Chinese, but the situation grew increasingly bad with drastic reforms, abuses of political and religious leaders, and the destruction of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, scriptures, statues. A grassroots army formed in eastern Tibet to fight against the Chinese. Thousands of Tibetans fled to Lhasa, Tibet’s capital. The situation continued to deteriorate. Finally, in 1959, under suspicions of a Chinese plot to assassinate the Dalai Lama, he escaped in disguise to India. Thousands of Tibetans followed. They thought they would be in exile for a short while then return to Tibet, that the world would come to their aid, that in this global moment of decolonization a new case of colonization would not be allowed. It was.

Tibetans have now been in exile for over 55 years. Two generations, now three, of Tibetan refugees have been born in exile. And millions of Tibetans are still in Tibet. A Tibet partitioned into different Chinese provinces—Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Xizang, Yunnan—as “Tibetan autonomous” counties, prefectures, and regions. This political history and this separation of community are key to the self-immolations.

Why self-immolate? My best answer comes from the self-immolators themselves. I can’t do ethnographic fieldwork with self-immolators. Neither anthropologists nor journalists are allowed to Tibet to do research on self-immolation, nor are any foreign journalists posted to Tibet at all (that’s right, none. There are more foreign journalists in North Korea than in Tibet). Nor do historians have historical materials on which to draw: there is no history of self-immolation in Tibet save an 11th century monk named Dolchung Korpon who self-immolated in front of the sacred Jowo statue in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa. Instead, this is a contemporary global practice associated with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. His now-iconic 1963 protest in Saigon against the Diem government is considered to have established self-immolation as a 20th century—and now 21st century—form of political protest.

A commenter reports that the 142nd has just occurred.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 24, 2014 at 1:12 am

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