Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Few Thoughts About The Tibetan Self-Immolations

On Monday the self-immolations reached a level of coverage that had previously eluded them when both the Washington Post and the Huffington Post ran stories about them on the front pages of their sites. Right now the total count is 33 self-immolations, 32 of which have taken place over the last year, from a group of individuals ranging from young monks and teenage students to older nomads. Although a few journalists have been motivated to travel to the areas in eastern Tibet that are the hub of the self-immolations, they’ve mostly been given little notice by major media outlets. It seems that Jamphel Yeshe, the Tibetan who lit himself on fire in India, has provided the media with an accessible and undeniable example around which they can justify further coverage. Some thoughts:

1. The Chinese government has largely brought this crisis on itself. Although they have always gone to great lengths to restrict expression, ever since the 2008 Tibetan Uprising the government has upped the ante in every way. Closing Tibetan forums, arresting writers and singers, cancelling festivals, detaining intellectuals, increasing their interference in the monasteries, restricting travel between Tibetan regions, and striking hard at even the smallest protests, China has largely sealed every avenue for expression. Trends and policies that have been growing since the mid-90s, like greater Han immigration into Tibetan areas and more strident government denunciations of the Dalai Lama have also been taking their own toll. By refusing to reconsider these policies, Beijing has directly taken us to this crisis.

2. Self-immolations have not been a regular part of Tibetan resistance in the past. Some people, perhaps familiar with the Vietnamese self-immolations that also came largely from Buddhist clergy, harbor a misconception that this is a common tactic in Tibet. In fact, they’re almost unprecedented, with a sole self-immolation in the late 90s as the only prior incidence. In the long history of Tibetan resistance, from the defeat of the Tibetan army in 1950 to the Lhasa Uprising in 1959 to the guerilla resistance of the 60’s and massive protests of the late 80’s all the way to the Tibetan Uprising in 2008, never has the situation led to a rash of political suicides like this.

3. Beijing doesn’t know what to do about this. They’ve been very visibly struggling with how to respond, going back and forth frequently. First they denied that the self-immolations were happening, but then later admitted to it while trying to claim that they were the work of saboteurs and terrorists sent by the Dalai Lama. For a while they were trying to find other reasons that each person had lit themselves on fire, making up stories about particular monks having broken their vows or students having received poor grades and self-immolated in response. No one seems to have bought these explanations from the beginning, and they also backfired in terms of making Tibetans angrier- the immolators have largely been seen as heroes and martyrs, and hearing them slandered by state-run media figures served only to raise tensions. The armies of militarized police stationed in Tibetan areas may have prevented some larger street protests from occurring, but they can’t do anything about a single person with some kerosene and a lighter.

4. This may be the shape of the Tibet struggle in the future. In the past China has been able to identify consistent sources of protests (Labrang in Amdo, Lithang in Kham, Lhasa in U-Tsang, etc) and pacify them by force. Now the troops stationed in these places have kept them relatively quiet, but protests have spread to literally any place with a Tibetan population. We saw some of this in 2008, where protests took place in every major Tibetan town and prefecture (perhaps with the sole exception of Gyalthang), but in the last few months there have been protests and self-immolations in towns I’ve never even heard of before. These are small places that China has never felt the need to fortify in the past, and now they have to figure out how to respond. Do they have to keep every nook and cranny of Tibet under martial law? Will most of the plateau be locked down, not just every March but for months or even years at a time? Is there any effective way to prevent self-immolations? These are questions Beijing is going to have to deal with.

Just yesterday a group of 12 Nobel peace prize winners wrote an open letter to Hu Jintao, urging him to engage with the Dalai Lama and try to negotiate an end to the Tibet struggle. The Senate has passed a resolution condemning the Chinese crackdown in Tibet, and the UN has slowly been starting to take on the issue. Between outside pressure and the undeniable fact that the situation in Tibet is deteriorating, it seems like this would be an obvious time for China to re-evaluate their Tibet policies. Sadly there is no sign yet of them doing this, and in fact Beijing seems to be going even further in some regards. It has been two years since the last round of negotiations between the Dalai Lama’s envoys and Beijing, and after a state-run editorial called the Dalai Lama ‘Hitler’ last week, it doesn’t seem like they’re about to change course on that one. Changes to the minority autonomy system actually look like they would be even worse than the current one, with one plan from the United Work Department calling for an end to what little affirmative action policies exist in China. Par for the course, perhaps, but unlikely to help at a time when people are willing to burn themselves to death for a chance to register their disapproval of Chinese rule.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting this over here.

    Really great summary and analysis of what's been happening.