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.
Tibetan self-immolation is part of a historical global phenomenon. It is well known that Vietnamese monks set themselves alight in protest against the Vietnam War and that a Quaker in the United States then self-immolated in an act of support. In 1969, a man self-immolated in Czechoslovakia to protest Communist rule. In Tunisia in late 2010, an unemployed fruit seller set himself on fire and became the catalyst for the Jasmine Revolution. During the uprisings that followed, more such acts were reported in Tunisia and across the Arab countries. Even in China, self-immolations have been committed by Chinese as a protest against their government.
What is unique about the situation in Tibet is the terribly high number of tragedies. Even though so many of our people have resorted to self-immolation as their only means of protest, the international response has not at all resembled the outpouring of support for the anti-Vietnam War campaign or the powerful network of support shown during the Arab Spring.
Of course, all Tibetans welcome statements of concern from the international community, such as the recent one from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking the Chinese to resume dialogue with Tibetans. But concrete action is needed to help stop the tragedy in Tibet. The time has come for the world to shut out the noise of China’s influence and to hear the Tibetan cries: that repression is unbearable and unacceptable. Voices in Tibet cry out to see their leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Exiled since 1959, His Holiness is accessible to millions of people around the world, but not to his own people inside Tibet.
Because we know that the democracies of the world recognize basic human rights and freedoms to be universal values, we ask the international community to intervene before our situation deteriorates even further. In its annual human rights dialogue with China this month, the State Department should urge the Chinese to relax restrictions in Tibet immediately and request fact-finding delegations to investigate the reasons for the tragically high number of self-immolations in Tibet.