‘We have a sickness in us’

By Clare Blackburn

The word made me flinch. ‘Sickness’. As she spoke, my Tibetan friend gestured towards her chest with a short sharp movement of her hand.

It was winter already, and a small heater was struggling to warm the kitchen. Outside, snow covered the highest peaks of the Himalayan foothills, and tourists and Tibetans wandered the narrow streets of the refugee town bundled up in a motley array of yak-wool rugs, Gortex jackets and traditional padded chubas. As the town started to empty, travelers in search of warmer destinations and many Tibetans heading south for the Dalai Lama teachings in Karnataka, it was as if a sense of melancholy was settling in with the cold. 

‘Sickness’. Perhaps the word jarred because it reminded me of the kind of vocabulary the Chinese government might use, its propaganda machine still stuck in the histrionic rhetoric of the Cultural Revolution, the Dalai Lama a ‘splittist’, ‘a jackal in Buddhist monk’s robes and an evil spirit with a human face and the heart of a beast.’ In the eyes of the regime, the spate of self-immolations across Tibet - 82 men and 12 women as of December 9, 2012, 79 of whom have died – could be seen as desperate acts by ‘sick’ individuals, suicide a product of personal depression rather than political protest, a contagious virus requiring radical quarantine… 

But who was I to guess at the word choice of Chinese leaders? Since the first self-immolation in modern Tibet - in February, 2009, by a young monk, Tapey, from Kirti monastery in the troubled Ngaba prefecture of Sichuan - neither Hu Jintao, the outgoing Communist leader, nor Xi Jinping, his successor, has made a public statement dealing explicitly with the crisis. And, despite the shocking images coming out of Tibet, and the increasing frequency of each new case, the situation seems to have barely registered with global media and governments. In the drama currently unfolding in Tibet, what remains to be seen, therefore, is which speaks louder on the world stage; action, words, or silence itself? 

In fact, the tension between silence and speech has always been apparent in China’s reactions towards the issue of Tibetan independence. While its leaders are clearly reluctant to be drawn into dialogue, its representatives are often outspoken. In response to a statement on November 2, 2012 by the United Nations’ high commissioner Navi Pillay - the first such statement since the occupation of Tibet in 1950 – Heng Lei, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, was reported by Asia Times as turning blame against the Dalai Lama and his supporters in exile, accusing them of ‘ugly and evil acts intended to achieve the separatist goal of Tibetan independence.’ More recently, on December 6th, state-run newspaper the Gannan Daily reported a new law that anyone inciting others to self-immolate would be prosecuted for “intentional murder” . And, while in November the new General Secretary of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping, made waves in his leadership speech with overt references to corruption and the party’s ‘many pressing problems’, he made no mention at all of the unrest in Tibet, describing China as ‘a beautiful homeland where all ethnic groups live in harmony.’ And yet the new leader hasn’t always been so oblique. On July 19, 2011, in a speech marking the 60th anniversary of the so-called ‘Peaceful Liberation of Tibet’ delivered in front of Lhasa’s iconic Potala Palace, Xi Jinping began with another optimistic image, portraying contemporary Tibet as a Socialist idyll: 

Today, the ancient city of Lhasa has become a city of flowers. The snow-capped plateau has taken on a new look. The people of all ethnic groups in Tibet are chanting merrily to express their happiness and joy. 

He then claimed that the 1950-1951 invasion of Tibet ‘opened the path for the one million serfs in Tibet to stand up and become masters of their own fates’, reiterating the oft-repeated argument that China ‘freed’ Tibet from its feudalist past, and finally promised to; 

[…] fight against separatist activities by the Dalai group, rely on cadres and people of all ethnic groups, seek long-term policies and take measures that address the root cause, and completely destroy any attempt to undermine stability in Tibet and national unity of the motherland. 

‘Fight’ and ‘destroy’: hardly the language of reform or reconciliation. It seems that the debate the self-immolators hope to inspire risks being either stifled into silence or drowned out completely by the empty rhetoric of propaganda. 

In striking contrast to the bombast of Chinese speech-makers, Students For a Free Tibet and International Tibet Network recently released a YouTube video which parodies the new Chinese leader on the eve of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. In the footage, a man is shown sporting a giant papier mâché Xi-Jinping head and dancing like a buffoon through the streets of the Tibetan refugee town, Mcleod Ganj, to the Korean hit, Gangnam Style. It’s a technique more in tune with the (post-)modern world, and yet the video has only received 39,811 views as of December 5, 2012, whereas any speech by the real Xi Jinping has a guaranteed audience of millions.

Moreover, just as Tibetans have taken to Facebook, YouTube and Twitter in order to express their dissent in image and word, so China is evolving its own technological strategies of control. According to Tienchi Martin-Liao, journalist and president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, in the online magazine Sampsonia Way (August 15, 2012):

Big Brother is watching with high-tech equipment. The police [in Lhasa] carry machine guns and truncheons, and in their pocket, a cell phone or iPad. Recently they have taken to carrying fire extinguishers on their backs—not to save lives, but to prevent pictures of the person on fire from being disseminated online. Photos like that damage China’s image. 

So, while social networking sites have elsewhere been effective tools of revolution, as with the Twitter-led Arab Spring of 2011, the Great Firewall of China is currently stronger than any status update, with advanced internet surveillance, human face recognition technology and, according to the journalist Jonathan Watts (writing in The Guardian back in 2005), well over 30,000 ‘Internet police’ on hand to patrol the web for nascent signs of dissent. 

While its play between silence and speech remains ambiguous, China’s actions, however, have never left doubt. The repressive crackdowns in the wake of the immolations are nothing new in the troubled history of Chinese relations with Tibet - arbitrary arrests, monastery lockdowns by armed soldiers, martial law, security patrols, ‘patriotic re-education’ (involving the compulsory denunciation of the Dalai Lama), intense surveillance, the cutting-off of electricity, physical beatings and media blackouts – and, as VOA reported back in October, 2012, these methods have now been joined in Kanlho Prefecture (Chinese: Gannan) by offers of financial reward, roughly $8000 to anyone with information about planned immolations, and $30,000 for ‘credible information’ about those already committed. 

Rather than discourage further self-immolations, these repressive tactics will surely only further deepen the resentment of Tibetans against life under Chinese rule, and therefore keep fuelling the wave of self-immolations. 

‘We have this sickness inside us.’

Why did I flinch? Wasn’t this precisely what I had been thinking earlier that week? Beneath the surface veneer of dharma tourism and ‘tashi delek’ smiles of the street-sellers, it had struck me that everyone in Mcleod Ganj seemed to be struggling with a personal sense of trauma – from the protest march of schoolchildren in the green and yellow uniform of TCV , to the young political activists educated abroad but returned to India, to the bent figures of the original exiles who had accompanied the 14th Dalai Lama in his escape across the Himalayas in 1959 and who were now eking out an existence on handouts from the Tibetan Government in Exile and foreign sponsors. 

My own rose-tinted love affair with all things Tibetan had shifted radically one cold February in 2010. The mountain-top town – emptied of tourists and sunshine – wasn’t the Buddhist-Disneyland that I had initially taken it for, but the very real site of makeshift lives in exile, of the realities of existence without passport or identity papers, of people living at a great distance from their true home and families, caught up in a seemingly-impossible quest for belonging. Why then should it always be a question of smiles and welcome? Of course there was suffering, too, and desperation, and struggle. I had just been too high on my own projections to see it. Like many visitors to Mcleod, I had fallen in love with the place, with its prayer-flags and gold-roofed monasteries, and with the Tibetans themselves: the momo sellers, proud smiling women with striped aprons and open faces, the handsome boys with high-cheekbones and flashing eyes, the old men in cowboy boots and shades who walked the khora prayer route through the forest past sacred mani stones and monkeys. None of this had been a lie, but it wasn’t the whole truth either. Finding out more of the ‘reality’ had led to a disappointment which now seems shameful in its irrationality. After all, no one had promised me anything, and the illusions had been all my own. 

But then, dis-illusionment is vital for any true love to survive. There is no space for fantasy in real understanding and acceptance, and besides, flaws are not a reason to withhold support but even more of a reason to give it. The ‘truth’ of the Tibetan community is the truth of any group of humans living in a constant state of insecurity and exile, and they have no need of Westerners romanticizing them or harking back to some dreamt-up Hollywood Tibet. Idealized support risks being too easily challenged, so what is needed instead is honesty and an embrace of some of the uglier aspects of life in exile, not in order to condone them, but in order to start from how things are, rather than from how we wish they were.

In any case, that dis-illusionment was shifting now into something else: a mixture of bewilderment and compassion which was impossible to put into words. Sitting opposite my Tibetan friend as she identified the sickness inside her, I could do nothing but nod.

Meanwhile, the Tibetan community grieves in candle-lit processions that take place almost nightly now through the streets of Mcleod, the brightly-coloured Snowlion flag of Tibet barely visible in the darkness, the line of mourners chanting Buddhist prayers to honour the dead. Along the town’s two rough roads, with their tangle of water-pipes and tattered electricity lines, past Western restaurants, Kashmiri carpet sellers and Indian beggars, the procession of red-robed monks, locals and the occasional tourist, makes its way down to Tsuglagkhang, the Main Temple complex, where speeches are shouted out in voices cracked with emotion and a makeshift screen flashes images of the immolations into the night. 

Not all Tibetans attend, though. One friend explained his absence by saying that, since China regarded such events as inherently ‘political’, then if any of the Chinese spies rumoured to have infiltrated the community saw him there, it would jeopardize his chances of ever returning home. Others, wild-haired boys on motorbikes, escape the scene altogether, roaring up the mountains, their whoops some faint echo of Tibetan grasslands and that half-forgotten freedom. In any case, on a certain level the Tibetan identity cannot help but be fractured, split between Middle Way moderates and supporters of Rangzen Independence; between the spiritual and political (as if ever such a split could make any sense); between those inside Tibet and those in exile; between Mcleod Ganj and communities scattered around the world; between those fiercely defending their traditions and those emulating a ‘Westernness’ re-envisaged through an Asian lens; between those with businesses, money and foreign qualifications and those who are living hand-to-mouth, without education or employment. Given these diverse pressures and contexts, the call for commonality becomes even more urgent. There is a Facebook group called ‘the tsampa revolution’ which attempts to unite the scattered under this simple symbol of shared identity – the roasted barley flour consumed daily by Tibetans- and this togetherness in grief at the vigils is another more painful version of social and political bonding. But who can be expected to live with the intensity of this suffering on a daily basis? And what of the children, the next generation of Tibetans, who are growing up in the midst of this crisis, the images and stories of the suffering so inescapably part of their daily life? It is impossible to judge what degree of commitment is ‘enough’ and what kind of protest is ‘right’, and yet the Tibetans themselves must face these questions daily, witnessing the self-immolation of their fellow men and women, and unable as yet to enact the changes that might stop such desperate acts from occurring. 

And in the meantime, the rest of the world seems strangely reluctant to take note. The graphic images shown at vigils and online - of Tibetan nomads, nuns and monks, their bodies either ablaze or already blackened, charred and twisted, circled by shocked onlookers - these images are either too graphic for the world to see, or somehow not sufficient. What does the world want? Sanitized suffering, or perhaps a radical escalation into a horror deemed ‘worthy’ of front-page headlines? What will it take? 

But then perhaps silence is precisely what the West has been relying on to justify its non-intervention. China’s silence permits the West to mimic it, therefore safeguarding the economic interests that are so reliant on Chinese goodwill. If no explicit statement is made, no explicit response is required and business can continue as usual. As The Telegraph reported on December 2, 2012, leaked documents show that British Prime Minister, David Cameron, banned his ministers from meeting the Dalai Lama during the spiritual leader’s recent visit to London, despite His Holiness having stepped down from his political role on March 11, 2011, with leadership of the Tibetan Government in Exile now under Dr. Lobsang Sangay. According to the paper: 

The row took place as China was in talks about offering £27 billion, into a fighting fund expected to be used up by the International Monetary Fund to bail out Eurozone economies. 

Unfortunately, it’s no surprise that a world-leader views human rights as secondary to economic concerns, but it’s no less shameful and dishonorable for being predictable. This kind of political self-censorship is a profound act of disrespect to the 94 human beings who have sacrificed themselves precisely in order to gain the world’s attention. When a man living in a country which prides itself on its freedom of speech stays silent, then what hope is there for those who have had that right taken from them?

In my friend’s little kitchen, it was difficult to piece all the realities that surrounded us into a clear sense of place. The monks’ nightly debates from the neighbouring monastery provided the soundtrack to dinnertime, while other nights the frantic drumming and sound-systems of Indian weddings reverberated down the valleys until the early hours. The TV shifted between Indian talent shows, Hollywood movies and His Holiness’s teachings down in Mungod, while the table in front of us was cluttered with half-empty bowls of Tibetan noodle soup and plates piled with Indian chapatti, sheaths of papers covered in dense Tibetan calligraphy and an old copy of The Times of India. 

‘When I think of them, of what they have suffered, I cannot sleep at night,’ she said.

And perhaps this sentence goes some way to explaining why so many people avoid looking any closer. In Mcleod itself, there seemed to be various different layers coexisting with little or no communication between them. Many tourists, Indian and foreign, probably have no idea that the short man in the scruffy green jacket who walks the streets shouting hoarse Tibetan into a loud-speaker, is in fact announcing the latest self-immolation, a tragic town crier summoning the community to grieve. There are posters around town of Jamphel Yeshi, the 27-year-old from Tawu who self-immolated in protest against Hu Jintao’s visit to New Delhi in March, 2012 - burning limbs in a runner’s stride as he sought to extend the impact of his action – and huge banners showing the faces of all those who have died thus far hanging by the temple and in the main square, and yet some passing through claim to know nothing of what is happening. Monkey-barring their way from cappuccino to cappuccino in one of the town’s slick new cafés, shopping for singing bowls and spiritual insight, they seem unwilling or unable to engage with the very real business of the suffering around them. 

The sickness that my friend talked of, then, is far from being a source of shame, but is rather the natural reaction of a body exposed to so much toxicity and trauma, and subsequently the source of courage and determination for change. According to her, it is the symptom of everything that is wrong in Tibet: the suffering of life under foreign rule; of devout Buddhists who watch as their high lamas are compelled to flee abroad one by one; of nomads forced to abandon the open spaces of their tradition and move into cramped concrete blocks; of students made to study in another language and disavow their own intellectual heritage; of women forced into sterilization and abortion,;of a country losing its very identity through ongoing cultural genocide and a sustained policy of Han Chinese ‘population transfer’ into Tibetan land; of a people helplessly witnessing the relentless degradation and plunder of their environment through mining and deforestation for the benefit of people who have no idea what is being done ‘in their name’. For the Chinese people are not to blame here: many don’t even know where Tibet is, never mind the kind of policies which are currently being implemented there. And how can they have a critical opinion on a matter which, like anything polemical in China, is totally excluded from the public arena? Passing through the Kham areas of Sichuan recently, I noted how the radical censorship of the internet, the absurd good-news-only policy of TV channels, and the blocking of social networking sites has created a parallel reality where independent thought and expression is stifled at every juncture. 

There are voices inside China which do speak out in support of Tibet, but making yourself heard has a heavy cost in a regime which relies in part upon silence for its stability and strength. Back in March 2008, in the wake of riots in Lhasa on the anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising Day, 29 Chinese dissident intellectuals, including the Tibetologist, Wang Lixiong (married to the Tibetan writer and activist Woeser), and Liu Xiaobo (who was to win the Nobel Prize in 2010 for his work on human rights) signed an open letter, a 12-point petition about the Tibetan situation, warning of a growth in ‘inter-ethnic animosity’ and urging the government to invite independent investigators to witness things for themselves. Both have since been targeted and arrested for their political writings, and Liu Xiaobo is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence, due for release in 2020.

Back in Mcleod, I scanned political blogs, Facebook updates by young Tibetans, photos and videos smuggled out of Tibet, and some of the cursory articles in online foreign newspapers. Too often, a Google search yielded only scarce results, and yet in November alone there were 28 self-immolations. To even begin to understand, we have to want to witness. And this, in the face of state censorship and personal apathy, and our own fear or inability to examine things in their full complexity and depth. While it may seem an impossible task to try and understand what drives a human being to drink petrol, to douse themselves in it, and then set themselves alight, this is precisely what the self-immolators are calling out for us to do, so that we might comprehend the situation that is causing them to take such drastic action, and, comprehending it, demand for it to change. 

Of the 94 lay men and women, monks and nuns, who have burnt themselves in opposition to the repressive policies of the Chinese regime, language has been a vital part of their protest. Many shouted out slogans for a Free Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama in the very act of dying, or left written personal statements that clearly spell out their desire for an end to the sustained and systematic destruction of Tibetan human rights, culture, language, and religion. 

Tsering Woeser, the Tibetan activist, poet and writer who writes from within China and in Chinese, vowed in a recent blog post to record the final words left behind by self-immolators, in recognition that, in order to be globally perceived as truly political, these events require commentary, ideally from the self-immolators themselves. Actions and words therefore need to work together in order to speak as loudly as possible. To take one example, Lama Sobha, a senior Tibetan monk who self-immolated in the Darlag region of Qinghai on January 8th, 2012, left an audio message that is unambiguous in its call for Tibet to ‘unite as one’. As quoted in Woeser’s post, Lama Sobha declares that:

I am taking this action neither for myself not to fulfill a personal desire nor to earn an honor. I am sacrificing my body with the firm conviction and a pure heart just as the Buddha bravely gave his body to a hungry tigress. All the Tibetan heroes too have sacrificed their lives with similar principles. 

While some foreign observers struggle to reconcile the image of burning bodies with Buddhist principles of non-violence, or to understand this loss of Tibetan lives when the population is already so small, Lama Sobha’s words highlight the role of ‘sacrifice’ in his decision and therefore render these external readings highly problematic. And, as a Tibetan activist put it to me, when the smallest act of political disobedience leads to imprisonment and torture, then perhaps the choice to self-immolate becomes ‘easier to understand’.

But that evening in the kitchen, I could find no words of comfort for my friend adequate to her suffering. As a passport-holder from a country which in fact played a fatal role in destabilizing Tibet in the early 20th-century, a Western traveler always on the way to some sort of elsewhere, but in a luxury exile that was freely assumed and which I can choose to end at any moment, what can I say? I cannot claim to understand or explain, all I can present here is my own reaction, my own experience this November in Mcleod Ganj. 

Like Woeser’s project to collect the last words of every self-immolator, what is needed are individual acts of preservation to counteract the scenes of destruction and loss that are occurring now so frequently. Another such strategy is represented in Tibet by Lhakar, ‘a homegrown people’s movement’ in which;

[…] in spite of China’s intensified crackdown, Tibetans have embraced the power of strategic nonviolent resistance. Every Wednesday, a growing number of Tibetans are making special effort to wear traditional clothes, speak Tibetan, eat in Tibetan restaurants and buy from Tibetan-owned businesses. 

Action is crucial, there is no doubt about it, but so are words and images and their careful preservation, otherwise so much risks being lost in the flames. So many moments stick in my memory: a photograph of the smiling 18-year-old nun, Tenzin Choedon, who was to burn herself to death shouting political slogans; a Tibetan friend in exile wondering about his sister still inside Tibet and whether she would choose a similar path; the two laughing young children playing with their candles during political speeches at the Temple, too young yet to understand; the plaintive nomad song of a former-political prisoner at a fund-raiser in an Italian restaurant in Mcleod; the image of Jamphel Yeshi, his face contorted with pain; the raw intensity of an old woman shouting her speech at the temple in a thick Amdo accent, barely pausing for breath in her desperate need to be heard; and the noise of the loudspeaker blaring out over the jumbled rooftops and trees of Mcleod, announcing yet another death in Tibet. 

The future is radically uncertain for this community, both in Tibet and in exile. As China faces more and more problems of its own – environmental protests by a increasingly-worried and increasingly-vocal middle class, endemic corruption, anti-government riots by Uighurs in Xinjiang, a predicted economic slowdown, rising inflation, wealth gap, rural poverty, growing strikes and worker unrest, to name but some – perhaps things will finally shift. But then, once the Dalai Lama passes away, Tibet will have lost its unifying spiritual leader, its main inspirer of foreign support, and the guarantor of Indian hospitality. What happens next, only time will tell. But in the interim, Tibet continues to burn. In honour of the 94 people who have set themselves on fire in order to draw our attention to the sickness in Tibet, it is vital that we resist China’s attempt to hide and silence their acts of courage. And so, while it remains to be seen whether the actions and words of the few can break the inaction and silence of the majority, when people die to be heard, the very least we can do is pay attention. 

Editor's NOTE--- Clare Blackburn is an English teacher and traveler based in England, and the above article is initially published on phayul

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  1. i am confused.. what is the sickness that she is talking about?

  2. Dear Clare,
    Thank u so much for ur concern! i wish UN and others leaders can also understand that we are same human being as they are and we are also borne to live as those people do..... but then why my country mates are jumping to such a extreme action..... pliz find out if you all are real leader!