Tibetan musician releases music video honoring self-immolations

July 18, 2013

A Tibetan singer from the Chinese province of Sichuan has released a song and musical video titled "Patriotic Martyrs" in tribute to Tibetan self-immolations, of which there have been 119 since 2009. The immolations, an increasingly severe problem for Beijing, are a form of political protest against China's rule over Tibet and its restrictions on political and religious freedoms there.

The song, by singer Jampel, was highlighted and translated into English by the respected Tibet-watcher blog High Peaks Pure Earth. The blog explains the overt political meaning of the work:

The song “Patriotic Martyrs” is clearly about the self-immolations in Tibet with many references to fire and flames in the lyrics. The line “The courage of Thupten Ngodup” refers to the first Tibetan self-immolator. Thupten Ngodup self-immolated on April 27, 1998 in New Delhi, India, and died two days later. Interestingly, Thupten Ngodup was the only self-immolator to be mentioned by name in the last message of Lama Soepa who self-immolated on January 8, 2012: “To all the six million Tibetans – including those living in exile – I am grateful to Pawo Thupten Ngodup and all other Tibetan heroes who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet and for the reunification of the Tibetan people.”

The word “Pawo” means hero and is a title given to honour Tibetans who have sacrificed their lives. In this context, the title also connotes a martyr. In the song, Jampel specifically mentions both pawo (the male form) and pamo (the female form) but, for the sake of brevity, in our translation we have only used one English word “martyr” to include both the men and the women.

It is indeed difficult to miss the message in lyrics such as, "In the world of patriots ablaze in masses / There is the life of a humble Tibetan / There is the call of a crowd rising up / Be grateful / Be thankful."

The self-immolations have been controversial within the Tibetan community itself, which extends well beyond the Tibet Autonomous Region into other Chinese provinces and parts of India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based. The Dalai Lama, who has struggled for years to negotiate Tibet's fate directly with Beijing, has called the acts of protest "understandable" and encourages China to investigate what's causing them but makes a point of not encouraging self-immolations.

Jeffrey Bartholet investigated the self-immolations for the New Yorker, trying to answer a question that has puzzled many outsiders: What are they hoping to accomplish, with such costly acts that seem likely to change very little?

On one level, the protests are a form of political theater, designed to attract sympathetic attention to the cause of a free Tibet, but their more immediate aim is harder to pin down. There is little likelihood that Chinese politics will change significantly, or that other countries are prepared to expend much diplomatic energy on the matter. Yet, according to Robert Barnett, the direct of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, the more oblique aspect of the protests is recognizably Tibetan – the self-expression of a people who have long been deprived of the fundamental freedom to organize and express themselves politically. He told me, "It's a hidden politics – a politics without words, a politics of symbols, a politics of gestures."

Here, form High Peaks Pure Earth, are the full English-translation lyrics of "Patriotic Martyrs":

In the world of tears decorously flowing
In the space of fire blazingly burning
There is the soul of a brave man of the grasslands
There is the fate of a powerless humanity
Be grateful
Be thankful
The courage of Thupten Ngodup
The courage of Thupten Ngodup

In the horizon of the life force carried away in the air
In the graveyard of flesh and bone burned in the fire
There is the honor of a patriotic martyr
There is the suffering of a separated people
Be grateful
Be thankful
The courage of Tashi Gyatso
The courage of Tashi Gyatso

In the Snowland of hope of years and months
In the world of patriots ablaze in masses
There is the life of a humble Tibetan
There is the call of a crowd rising up
Be grateful
Be thankful
The patriotic martyrs of Tibet
The patriotic martyrs of Tibet

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Max Fisher · July 18, 2013