Self-sacrifice in the desperate fight for Tibet

By Michael Danby 

Michael Danby 
It is now well over a year since I expressed my overwhelming concerns for those Tibetans, particularly Buddhist nuns and monks, who have been attacked as so-called separatists by the Chinese Government.

In fact Tibetan leaders, including His Holiness the Dalai Lama, do not seek separation from China but rather the end of Chinese colonialisation, including a domestic national constitution that protects Tibet’s linguistic, religious and cultural autonomy.

This middle way approach, which would maintain Chinese control of foreign affairs and defence, but allow Tibetan domestic autonomy of Tibet, is supported by the All-Party Parliamentarians Group for Tibet, of which I am chair.

Tragically, there has been a deterioration in conditions on the ground for indigenous Tibetans in the last 12 months, together with a continuing international indifference to the plight of Tibetans and the deliberate erosion of their immensely rich and ancient culture.

Since my last report, the growing anger and despair of Tibetans has led to increasingly deadly clashes between protestors and Chinese security forces. This is the most significant escalation of the conflict since the riots in Lhasa in March 2008, which saw the deaths of over 20 Tibetans.

Recently Lobsang Sangay took over from the Dalai Lama as the political head of the government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India. Following the latest outbreak of violence, he has called for the international community to send a United Nations fact-finding mission to the region. Indeed, as he has pleaded, “how long and how many tragic deaths are necessary before the world takes a firm moral stand?”.

The most dramatic aspect of the conflict between indigenous Tibetans and the Chinese is the emergence of a new and appalling form of protest, self-immolation. The cycle of self-immolation began on 16 March 2011, when a 22-year-old Buddhist monk, Lobsang Phuntsok, set himself alight in the Sichuan Province, apparently to commemorate the 2008 uprisings. Since that time at least 16 Tibetans, mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, have emulated this terrible form of protest.

Those of us old enough can recall the actions of Thích Quảng Đức, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who self-immolated at a downtown Saigon intersection in June 1963. That moment was captured by an American photojournalist and reproduced on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Like the Tibetan monks who have followed in his wake, he too was protesting the persecution of co-religionists. Đức’s last words, written in anticipation of his agonising protest, sought not to incite hatred against his oppressors, but instead pleaded for their compassion and tolerance. The dignity of his stance was enhanced by his stillness as the flames consumed his body. New York Times journalist David Halberstam, who witnessed the event, wrote that “as he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound”.

Forty-seven years later, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, self-immolated in the city of Sidi Bouzid following humiliating treatment by a municipal officer. It not only aroused the Tunisian street and fomented the subsequent revolution, but is also widely believed to be the catalyst for protests from Morocco to Bahrain. Just over a year later, Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years in power. As the Times of London editorialised when naming Bouazizi its Person of 2011, “…his brief life and agonising death are a fanfare for the common man”.

Why is there such a wide-ranging impact to these shocking acts of suicide? Perhaps because it draws a stark line with accustomed forms of political protest. Unlike the suicide terrorist whose sole aim is to kill, it is an essentially altruistic decision that takes one’s own life, but, not the lives of others. Although suicide is prohibited under the tenets of Buddhism, altruism is also a prominent feature of its belief system. Despite the intrinsic violence of the act, it is paradoxically founded in notions of non-violent resistance. In this respect it is more akin to the hunger strike, most famously popularised in the 1930’s by Mohandas Gandhi.

The manifest desperation of these acts of self-immolation has of course required ever more desperate (and therefore absurd) diplomacy from the Chinese government. Unsurprisingly, and precisely as occurred in 2008, the Dalai Lama has been blamed for the violent protests, once again labelled a separatist and a supporter of terrorism. In contradiction to his oft-stated and enduring adherence to non-violent protest and the sanctity of life, he has been accused as the principal promoter of self-immolation. In fact, the Dalai Lama has expressly condemned self-immolation as a form of protest. The Karmapa Lama, the third highest ranking Tibetan Lama and a possible successor to the Dalai Lama, has also urged Tibetans to do all within their powers to preserve their lives.

The Chinese have set in motion a self-fulfilling cycle of violence. Authorities increase security measures following these protests, but the resultant crackdowns inspire further acts of self-immolation until the renewed sense of outrage erupts once more and the cycle of escalating violence begins anew. No clear-eyed view of this catastrophe can envisage a time in the near future when the ever-greater recourse to offensive firepower by security forces will resolve China’s strategic ethnic problems. Self evidently, as Kirti Rinpoche, Chief Abbot of the Kirti Monastery associated with many of the recent immolators, said to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US House of Representatives, “they are doing this because they’ve reached the end of their rope. They’ve tried everything else”.

Whatever the sovereignty issues between the Chinese and Tibetans, and however the Chinese view the strategic and nationalistic importance of Tibet as an incorporated region of China, the tension over Tibetan identity cannot be resolved.

It is impossible to imagine a Tibet absent its Buddhist consciousness, iconography and artefacts. As the Dalai Lama wrote to me in September 2010:

...the Chinese plan is to turn the monasteries into mere showcases like museums, manned by only a few monks as caretakers. Such plans represent a systematic, long-term strategy to eliminate all remaining vestiges of Tibetan identity and cultural heritage.

The ongoing protests will only end when Tibetans are offered the reasonable hope that their most precious religious, educational, economic and human rights freedoms will one day be restored. If nothing else, the resistance of the Tibetans, unabated over 50 years, reveals an astonishing resilience.

The international community must accept the futility of its indifference to the plight of the Tibetans, because surely they are prepared to continue their ceaseless and largely peaceful fight for self-determination. Is there anyone who would not believe that sooner is better?

NOTE--Michael Danby is a Member of the Australian Parliament for Melbourne Ports. He is well-known as an advocate for human rights and frequently speaks on issues such as Tibet and Darfur.

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