ANALYSIS : The meaning of self-immolation in Tibet

A Tibetan lady throwing white scarf
 to honor the self-immolator
By Ajaz Ashraf

Through self-immolation, the Tibetans are symbolically saying that because of the Chinese repression and the Dalai Lama's exile, they are as alive as a dead body waiting to be cremated.

It is an eloquent testimony to our skewed priorities that we in South Asia devote reams of newsprint on the American presidential election and ignore the spate of self-immolations in Tibet. We do not see the cruel irony in celebrating the tawdry drama of one of the world’s oldest democracies even as Tibetans court death to ensure Beijing does not efface the key markers of their identity. From February 2009, in 63 instances of self-immolation, 52 Tibetans have died. Those who survived were whisked away to hospitals, from where most of them never returned.

This tragic but unique form of protest against the Chinese repression has escalated over the months: 49 Tibetans have already set themselves ablaze this year, a shocking increase from the 13 who self-immolated last year. Most of them (45) were between 17 and 30 years old, testifying to the hopelessness among the young and the persistence of their alienation despite the concerted attempts of the Chinese government to compel them to integrate into its system.

Most of the 63 self-immolations share certain similarities. Those who died chose to set themselves ablaze outside famous monasteries or public places. Their choice of venue suggests the self-immolators consciously sought to turn their death into a public spectacle, in the hope of conveying to both the people and police the meaning of their action. Yet the audience could not interpret their action in any way other than as a protest against the Chinese government, for they shouted, as they turned into a raging ball of fire, slogans for freedom or demanding the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Their death, in almost all cases, seemed to inspire people immediately to overcome their fear and assemble at the protest site or participate in the cremation of the deceased.

Some self-immolators chose to record their statements before walking to their chosen site of death. In their English rendering, these testimonials are remarkable for the absence of fear of death in them, their willingness to undergo searing pain, and their expression of anguish at the repression of their people. For instance, Lama Soepa, before lighting fire to his body doused in inflammable liquid, was recorded saying, “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness...” After paying tribute to those who committed self-immolation before him, the Lama said, “I pray that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and remain as Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader.”

Concern over preserving the cultural identity of Tibetans is articulated in the statement Nangdrol recorded before committing self-immolation on February 19 this year. He said, “Men and women of Tibet/I hope you all will keep unity and harmony/Wear Tibet if you are Tibetan/Moreover, you must speak Tibetan/Never forget you are Tibetan.../Restraint from taking lives of living beings.” The last line of his statement read, “May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live for many 10,000 years.” Heart-rending is the video of Ngawang Norphel, who set himself afire but did not die. Lying in a monastery, his face badly burnt and disfigured, calmly enduring pain, Norphel mustered ample resolve to utter, “Every nationality needs freedom, language and tradition. Without language, what would be our nationality? (Should we then) call ourselves Chinese or Tibetan?”

Three conclusions can be drawn from these recorded statements, apart from their expressions of anxieties about culture and the continued banishment of the Dalai Lama, who resides in India. One, there exists at least a rudimentary network to record and transmit the statements of self-immolators worldwide. Two, Tibetans do not consider self-immolation a sin; it is in fact extolled. Three, each self-immolator seems to inspire others to emulate him or her.

All this has prompted many to demand that the Dalai Lama should express his disapproval of self-immolation, believing such a proclamation could dissuade those contemplating to embrace fiery death voluntarily. Others, like Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion in Boston University, have questioned the silence of westerners over self-immolations in Tibet, particularly as suicide bombing seems to repulse them. This is precisely the logic the Chinese have extended to dub self-immolation as terrorism and claim it violates the tenets of peace and compassion enshrined in Buddhism.

Indeed, there are similarities between the suicide bomber and the self-immolator. Both believe death is the only recourse left for them to secure justice. Both choose to die because they wish through their sacrifice to provide a better future for their people. Yet there is a vital difference between the suicide bomber and what cultural theorist Terry Eagleton calls the martyr, or the person who fasts to death for a cause or demand. In a piece for The Guardian in 2005, Eagleton wrote, “The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it. But both believe that a life is only worth living if it contains something worth dying for.”

The self-immolator is as much Eagleton’s martyr, as both kill themselves without harming anyone else through their act. Indeed, the statements of Tibetans who burnt themselves to death are remarkable for not preaching vengeance against their tormentors, for not even asking those alive to emulate them. They offer their bodies as a voluntary sacrifice for preserving the cultural unity of Tibet. It means, so to speak, walking the path of Buddha, one of whose incarnates offered his body to a famished lioness who was about to feast on her cubs. Through self-immolation, the Tibetans are symbolically saying that because of the Chinese repression and the Dalai Lama’s exile, they are as alive as a dead body waiting to be cremated.

Thus, in setting their bodies on fire they are in reality cremating themselves — and also mocking their tormentors who, unable to establish supremacy over the hearts and minds of Tibetans, forever seek to control their bodies. The Tibetan self-immolator defies power in the same manner as Eagleton’s suicide bomber does — he and she simply learn to overcome their fear of death. Since death is no longer feared, the capacity of political power to coerce people stands undermined. About the suicide bomber, Eagleton says, “By slipping through the fingers of power (by dying), leaving it grasping at thin air, they force it to betray its own vacuousness...It proclaims that what your adversary cannot annihilate is the will to annihilation.” In its failure to overpower the Tibetan’s will to annihilation, as also in its inability to convince the Tibetan to live, the Chinese regime is rendered a wee bit more illegitimate every time a monk sets himself ablaze.

The feared erosion of their legitimacy prompts the Chinese to take retributive action against the monasteries to which the dead were affiliated. This in itself balloons the number of people willing to self-immolate, creating a crisis of legitimacy for Beijing. As for the rest of us in the world, we prefer silence to the grim prospect of China directing its wrath against us or depriving us of its money to develop our economy. The raucous American election circus helps to muffle the murmur of our conscience.

Editor's NOTE-- The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at The above article is originally published by a Pakistan based journal - Daily Times


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