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Global Voices: Tibetan self-immolation soars with despair

June 06, 2013|By Carol J. Williams
  • Tibetan exiles at a memorial in New Delhi on May 17, the day marked as International Tibet Solidarity Day. The vigil was held to pay homage to Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 for the cause of Tibet and its religious, cultural and political autonomy.
Tibetan exiles at a memorial in New Delhi on May 17, the day marked as International… (Saurabh Das / Associated…)

Fire in the Land of Snow,” a documentary examining the spreading phenomenon of self-immolation protests in Tibet, provides the latest troubling chapter in the history of a solitary population inhabiting the Himalayan highlands known as the Roof of the World.

An empire of nomadic tribes and remote principalities, Tibet fended off covetous Asian armies for centuries before the new revolutionaries ruling the People’s Republic of China invaded in 1950 and embarked on a mission to force the agrarian Buddhists into communism's industrial mold.

A 1951 treaty spelling out how power would be shared between Beijing and Lhasa swiftly unraveled amid violations and recriminations. In 1959, China abolished the autonomous Tibetan government after a failed uprising, chasing the Dalai Lama -- the Tibetan Buddhists’ spiritual leader -- and tens of thousands of his followers into exile.

Those left behind have chafed under Beijing’s yoke for more than half a century. As Mao Tse-tung pressed the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, as many as a million Tibetans died of hunger, disease and abuse. Zealous Red Guards destroyed 6,000 monasteries across the subjugated mountain domain.

The Beijing government eased restrictions on Tibetans briefly during the 1980s, but that respite, along with other political reforms in China, ended with the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Since then, Tibet’s relations with the capital have reverted to a cycle of confrontation, with Tibetan protests spurring punishment, giving rise to more protest.

Since 2009, when Beijing tightened its administrative grip on the region following massive protests, at least 118 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in a public display of desperation. Once the rare, radical action of Buddhist monks sacrificing themselves for their religious and cultural heritage, self-immolation has lately been embraced by teenagers, women, intellectuals and workers in the prime of life.

In the hourlong documentary produced by Tibetan exile and Voice of America Tibetan Service director Losang Gyatso, “Fire in the Land of Snow” recounts recent Tibetan history and poses the question of why so many are choosing to protest “through one of the most painful and terrifying ways to die.”

Gyatso spoke with The Times about the film’s making and its message.

Q: Why is the frequency of self-immolation rising so dramatically? Is it a sense among the Tibetans that nothing else draws the outside world’s attention?

Losang Gyatso: It’s a combination of reasons. One is the further clampdowns on monasteries and the "reeducation programs" that have begun. The response of authorities has been to describe those who commit self-immolation as marginal people, disturbed people with problems. Tibetans have taken offense at this characterization as they see these as sincere actions over serious issues that have been unaddressed.

Q: Those who die in the act of self-immolation are celebrated as martyrs. Is that a driving force behind the increasing number of deaths?

Gyatso: It’s difficult to lump them all together as to motivation. Some are driven by the assaults on monastic life and religious practices. Some are taking action to protest language teaching changes – the substitution of Mandarin or Chinese for Tibetan as the teaching medium. Almost all had called for some easing of the crackdowns happening across Tibet. In the testimonies left behind by some – the poetry and the recordings – they all demand freedom and ask for the return of the Dalai Lama. I don’t think there is a sense in the Tibetan community of self-immolation as a kind of cult. This form of protest was preceded by years of writers and artists trying to express dissent and Tibetan identity in a more traditional way.

Q: With journalists largely prevented from visiting Tibet, how do you go about getting visual images from the region?

Gyatso: With great difficulty. What photos and pictures and video that exist today of self-immolation or the security buildups in Tibet, the images used in the film, came from individuals who took great risks to get them. They are from cellphones, primarily. Some of the footage in the film, of the security in a village outside Lhasa showing people being beaten, that actually came from Chinese security footage that leaked out.

Q: What do you think China fears about a more open and autonomous Tibet?

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