Lobsang Sangay is Tibet’s Kalon Tripa, or prime minister, leader of the Tibetan government in exile.
Since 2009, 43 Tibetans have set themselves on fire while shouting slogans for the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet and crying for freedom for Tibetans. These people include monks, nuns, nomads and students. Two were mothers. All but 11 have died. Yet their actions and the issue of Tibet have not generated the commensurate attention or support. Instead, the Chinese government casts blame on these Tibetans and refuses to examine the root causes of their actions.
Despite repeated appeals by the central Tibetan administration, which is based in India, to refrain from such drastic actions, Tibetans persist in self-immolations. At the same time, we in the Tibetan administration recognize our sacred duty to make the protesters’ cries heard around the globe by all who believe in justice. Tibetans everywhere have offered prayers for those who have died.
The Communist Party of China has labeled these self-immolations terrorist acts. This is ludicrous. Complexities exist in Buddhist philosophy about whether harming oneself is violent or if the motivation for the act, rather than the act itself, determines its nature. What is absolutely clear, however, is that these protesters intended to avoid harming anyone other than themselves.
To understand these acts, it is crucial to know that within China, there is no room for freedom of speech and conventional forms of protest. A participant in a simple demonstration runs a high risk of arrest, torture and even death. Consider that when the Chinese celebrated their new year in February, hundreds of Tibetans protested in the regions of Drakgo, Serta and Ngaba (traditionally known as Amdo; now Qinghai province). The Beijing government responded by shooting at the demonstrators. Six died.
Denied the right to less extreme forms of protest, Tibetans are setting fire to themselves as political action. Nearly all have been younger than 50. That means they were born and brought up under the occupation of Tibet that has lasted since 1959, when the government of the People’s Republic of China promised a “socialist paradise.” These Tibetans were intended to be the “primary beneficiaries” of the Chinese political system and its education, economy and culture. Instead, they serve as a clear indictment of the Chinese government’s failed policies for Tibet: policies founded on political oppression, social marginalization, cultural assimilation and environmental destruction. These are the root causes of the demonstrations and the deaths. Were the Chinese government to offer to resolve the issue of Tibet peacefully through dialogue, the self-immolations would end immediately.
The Chinese government has completely shut down Tibet to foreign tourists and journalists. Tibetans from outside the Tibet Autonomous Region are expelled. One Chinese scholar noted early this year that in the capital of the region, it is thought that “there are more Han Chinese than Tibetans, more soldiers than monks, and more surveillance cameras than windows.” Sadly, there are simply more guns than our traditional butter lamps for the dead.