A burning Tibet cannot be good for China

By Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis

For possibly most of China, Tibet, or what officially is the Tibetan Autonomous Region, is a serene sort of a place; a place where high mountains shadow vast open valleys, where colourfully dressed Tibetans lead a tranquil, pastoral lives going about their routines with their heads down and where antique monasteries are home to ancient mysticism.

A cheerful, young anchor from the national broadcaster CCTV – the wonderful parallel to our very own, homegrown Doordarshan – took his viewers across parts of TAR the other evening; it was in fact a cheerful journey full of flags flapping in distilled air, rugged terrain and jolly, welcoming people sharing hot cups of butter tea.
Wednesday’s China Daily carried a one-page feature – which reminded the-gullible-reporter in me of an advertorial – on “Tibet still on steady path to growth.”
The closest I have been to Tibet is Majnu ka Tila near Delhi University and my information is based on statements from human rights groups and the responses from the Chinese government. But maybe, just maybe the situation is not as tranquil in Tibet, which China considers inextricably its own.
Last week alone, seven ethnic Tibetans deliberately doused themselves with the nearest can of fuel and lit themselves; six lit themselves well enough to die of lethal burn injuries. They had nearly 50 other examples to follow of ethnic Tibetans who have self immolated demanding more freedom under Beijing’s hard-line rule and the return of their spiritual icon, Dalai Lama.
All the cases didn’t take place in TAR; ethnic Tibetans are also found in the four provinces of eastern China: Sichuan, Qinghai, Yunnan and Gansu.
The protest suicides are all but blacked out in the government-controlled media. When the state-run Xinhua does confirm the rare death, the reasons given for the suicides are not political; the reasons usually are domestic infighting, acting under the influence of alcohol or acting under the influence of alcohol because of domestic infighting.
Ironically, when questions about the suicides are raised at press conferences – like at the one last week – the spokesperson, any spokesperson for the day for that matter, are belligerent in blaming Dharamshala-based Dalai Lama in inciting the simple, rustic Tibetan. The self immolators are branded “terrorists.”
Do terrorists usually burn themselves to death after a fight with his wife? Or having too much chang? Or is he not brainwashed enough by outside forces to carry out a suicide attack on government forces and symbols? The terrorist, it seems, is brainwashed just enough to light a match stick, or maybe a made in China lighter, to his own oil-slicked body.
I agree completely with China Daily’s Thursday advertorial – err, perceptive feature stories – about the fact that “…TAR is on a trajectory to maintain stable and balanced growth thanks to a set of preferential policies from the central government and assistance across the country” and “income growth rate in double digits for the ninth consecutive year.” I am certain that as rest of China progresses, Tibetans too will have less chilly winds of progress blowing over their mountainous homes.
But maybe Chinese leaders should put their ears to the hard ground of eastern China to find out what’s actually happening. The sudden rise in protest suicides days before the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is surely not coincidental; those protesting China’s rule know the world’s focus is on Beijing. It should also be remembered that the suicides took place in spite of heavy presence of security personnel. It can’t be great for China if its own citizens continue to burn themselves to death. For the new leadership readying to rule China, to douse the fire and make Tibet actually serene and tranquil should be a priority.

NOTE-- Sutirtho Patranobis is a journalist, who travels intensively and writes intensively. The above article is initially published on The Hindustan Times on Wednesday, October 31, 2012

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