Self-immolations reflect rising Tibetan anger

He walked three times around the rural monastery he had attended as a small child, cycled into town and had a simple vegetarian meal with a friend. Then 22-year-old Lobsang Jamyang excused himself to go to the bathroom.

Inside, he doused himself with gasoline. When he emerged, he was already in flames.

Jamyang then ran a few yards to the intersection at the center of the eastern Tibetan town of Ngaba, faced its huge main Kirti monastery and shouted slogans calling for Tibetan independence from China and for the return of the Dalai Lama, the region’s exiled religious leader.

In the tense and heavily militarized town, police first kicked him and beat him with clubs spiked with nails before dousing the flames, according to witness reports compiled by refugee groups here in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala.

Jamyang was one of more than 33 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in a recent wave of copycat acts of resistance against Chinese rule. The self-immolations are a reaction to what many Tibetans see as a systematic attempt to destroy their culture, silence their voices and erase their identity — a Chinese crackdown that has dramatically intensified since protests swept across the region in 2008.

Before he died, Jamyang had given the friend he lunched with three messages, said a close friend. One was that Tibetans in his village should work harder to preserve their language against the onslaught of Mandarin; the second was that a couple in his village who had recently divorced should reunite.

“The third message was that Tibetans should be very strong to face China, that Tibetans should not be cowards and should not remain silent,” said the friend, who fled his homeland for Dharmsala but remains in touch with local people. Today, Dharmsala is home to thousands of Tibetans, grouped around the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 as an uprising there was ruthlessly crushed.

In the spring of 2008, as the Beijing Olympics approached, Tibet was once again engulfed in protests and riots in which hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested. The response has been brutal, human rights groups say.

A program to resettle Tibet’s nomads into apartments or cinder-block houses and fence off their vast grasslands has gathered pace, the replacement of Tibetan by Chinese as a medium of instruction in schools has been expanded, and government control over Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries, the center of religious and cultural life, has been tightened.

Yet the crackdown seems to have fueled a renewed sense of Tibetan national identity, according to refugees who have fled the region recently for Dharmsala and those like teacher Kelsang Nyima, who returned to his Tibetan village in the Chinese province of Qinghai this year to visit relatives.

“When I left Tibet in 1998, there was not that much conversation about Tibetan nationalism, although some people talked of the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” he said. “This time I can strongly feel the growing sense of nationalism among Tibetans. It is a huge change.”

Once a week, all across this vast Himalayan plateau, Tibetans wear traditional dress, speak only in Tibetan and avoid shops run by Han Chinese, a protest known as “White Wednesday.”

Scores of writers, intellectuals and artists were arrested in 2008 for overtly political work, but in a powerful resurgence of Tibetan culture, others have doggedly continued. Their messages of freedom and yearning for the return of the Dalai Lama are concealed in subtle metaphors that escape the wrath of Chinese officials.

Others yearn for a more overt expression of their feelings, an expression that has been closed off by China.

The monks’ statement

In February 2009, a young monk called Tapey from the Kirti monastery, among the most influential in the east of the Tibetan region, set himself alight carrying a homemade Tibetan flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama. He was fatally shot by police.

The monastery, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, had been under growing official scrutiny since 1997, its monks subject to intense sessions of “patriotic reeducation” and those deemed insufficiently enthusiastic thrown out of the order, said Lobsang Yeshi, a monk who has since fled to India but has remained in contact with his old friends.

“The three main monasteries in [the Tibetan capital] Lhasa were the center of Tibetan Buddhism, but now they are more or less for tourists,” he said. “But Kirti monastery is one of the few large monasteries that is still struggling to some extent. The Chinese see it as a threat to their control, and they are trying to eliminate it.”

The monks were divided on how to respond. The older ones, who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, when the monasteries of Tibet were largely destroyed and emptied, “who knew what the Chinese were capable of,” argued for cooperation, said Yeshi, while the younger ones urged resistance.

The 2008 protests effectively ended the debate. Yeshi said that at least 30 people lost their lives in Ngaba, and many monks were detained for their role in the uprising. When a second self-immolation followed in March 2011, the Chinese response was dramatic.

The monastery was sealed off and 300 monks were arrested. Villagers surrounding the monastery in an attempt to protect its occupants were beaten and carried off by the truckload. The teachers and two friends of the monk who set himself afire were sentenced to a decade or more in jail for homicide.

But instead of stopping the immolations, it has only encouraged more, 20 from Ngaba alone, most of them monks or former monks, but also two nuns and two lay Tibetans.

Today, the town feels like a military camp, sealed off by soldiers, barricades and barbed wire on every block, said 26-year-old nomadic herdsman Sugney Kyab, who arrived in Dharmsala this month after a harrowing escape over the Himalayas.

“When we hear about the immolations we feel very helpless, all we can do is cry,” he said. “We have no voice, we can’t even make a phone call, it is so suffocating.”

Kyab and other refugees said the immolators had become heroes to Tibetans, their acts “a clear expression that we can no longer live under Chinese rule.”

It is also, say increasing numbers of young Tibetan refugees, a sign of the failure of the Dalai Lama’s “middle way,” a two-decade-long attempt to conciliate the Chinese and negotiate with them, an avoidance of any talk of independence in favor of a vaguely defined call for autonomy within China.

Exiles’ anguished appeals

China’s response to the self-immolations has been to blame the Dalai Lama, with one state-run Web site recently accusing him of wanting to impose “Nazi” racial policies inside Tibet and build a “ ‘Berlin Wall’ of ethnic segregation and confrontation.”

The middle way, it said, was strikingly “similar to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jewish.”

The Dalai Lama has said that he does not condone the immolations, but he has largely removed himself from the debate since he retired from politics last year in favor of a democratically elected exiled administration headed by Lobsang Sangay, a former Harvard professor.

With Sangay reduced to seemingly impotent appeals to Tibetans not to take such “drastic” actions, the exile community in Dharmsala, which did so much to keep Tibet in the public eye during the dark years of China’s Cultural Revolution, has been reduced to the role of anguished spectator as Tibetans inside their homeland take up the mantle of resistance.

Jamyang, who came from a desperately poor nomadic family, became a monk at age 5, but at 10 he left to attend a Tibetan school. Just five years later, with his family facing financial problems, he was forced to leave.

His friend remembered him as someone who loved lying in the grass and playing as his family’s sheep and yak grazed.

“That was very funny to me when I reflect on his life,” the friend said.

But if Jamyang was passionate about Tibet’s rolling grasslands, over the years he also became passionate about politics, joining an association in his village trying to preserve the Tibetan language, a move that earned him trouble with the authorities.

In 2008, when the protests erupted, he warned his brothers that he was going to do something unique.

“His brothers took it as if he was just boasting,” the friend said. “But what I would like to mention is that he is very passionate about whatever he does.”

 
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