Thursday, December 6, 2012

What is going on in Tibet? Volume 2.

A few months ago I posted an overview of what was happening with the self-immolation crisis in Tibet here.  Since then things have changed in a few big ways, and I’d like to take a chance to get some of my thoughts out here.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the epicenter of the self-immolations has changed.  Take a moment and look at this map, prepared by ICT.  On it we can see the original center of the self-immolations, a town called Ngaba which has racked up an astonishing 30 self-immolations to date.  The first phase of the self-immolations may well be seen as the story of Ngaba, where a confluence of forces turned self-immolation from something unknown in Tibet into what was, over the last month, an almost daily occurrence.  Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery was one of the biggest in Tibet a few years ago, and the 2,500 monks who lived there were highly active participants in the 2008 Tibetan Uprising.  Afterwards, Chinese authorities at the provincial, prefectural, and monastic level turned Kirti into something that sounds more like a prison- a crackdown the authorities forgot to end.

Repression in Tibet can be bad enough on a good day, but the crackdown in Kirti Monastery was constant and punishing enough that it produced the first self-immolation in Tibet.  A young monk named Tapey lit himself on fire after hearing that authorities had forbidden the observance of Monlam, an important Tibetan holiday.  This appears to have been the last straw for him, and although it would be two years before another Tibetan self-immolated, the first few dozen self-immolators were drawn chiefly from the Ngaba area, and Kirti in particular.

Over time the phenomenon began to spread, though, and from the same map we can see that self-immolations have taken place in pretty much every region where Tibetans live.  The development of another cluster, this time in northern Amdo, is an important point.  If the epicenter was originally placed at Ngaba, it has now moved to Rebkong.  In recent weeks the Rebkong and Labrang areas have been hit almost daily by self-immolations, in a wide arc ranging from Rebkong to Labrang and the surrounding grassland towns and on towards Tsoe and Luchu.  These places combined now surpass the number of immolations in Ngaba.

These numbers tell a troubling story for the Chinese government.  It marks the normalization of self-immolation as a political statement in Tibet, and a blending of local and Tibet-wide politics.  Although each of the 92 immolators so far has probably come to the decision to light themselves on fire for a unique mixture of factors, there are some commonalities that have emerged from what they have shouted while aflame, or left behind in written statements.  Common refrains include requests for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, freedom for Tibet, unity among Tibetans, and the protection of Tibetan language and culture.  Chinese crackdowns have left Tibetans unable to express their discontent through what we would consider normal means, but this has in turn created a form of protest that China cannot hope to control.

China has no idea what to do about the self-immolations.  This was true last time I wrote here, and it is even truer now.  As the self-immolations have spread through Tibet and come with increasing frequency, Chinese attempts to stop them have been more and more hopeless.  Attempts to combat them with increased repression have just added more fuel to the fire.  An insultingly snide pamphlet passed around to Tibetan students typifies another kind of cluelessness.  At a time when the main street in Ngaba, witness to more self-immolations than any other single place, is called ‘Martyr’s Road,’ and the deceased are being given the title ‘hero,’ having a pamphlet published by the government insinuate that the self-immolators are terrorists was sure to give further offense to the students, and a massive protest followed.

China is unable to bring the burnings to a stop because they are aggressively attacking the symptoms, while completely ignoring the underlying disease.  Repression is what gave rise to this crisis, and more repression can only aggravate the situation.  Self-immolations are impossible to stop on a practical level, and once China has created circumstances bad enough for them to be employed as a tactic by Tibetans, there isn’t any clear reason for why they should stop unless the circumstances in Tibet improve.  The Communist Party has also hurt its ability to respond to this crisis by essentially alienating every important Tibetan.  Because any Tibetans with clout are forced to toe the Party line loudly and publicly, they either end up destroy their own standing among the Tibetan public by doing so, or they decide to disobey Beijing and end up in exile, imprisoned, or dead.  Thus the Communist Party is left without any bridges with which they can effectively speak to Tibetans.  If the young Panchen Lama hadn’t been abducted and replaced by someone Tibetans see as an impostor, could he bring the burnings to a stop?  Perhaps.  Thanks to Beijing’s short-sightedness, we don’t get to find out.

The self-immolations are illustrating exactly how deep opposition to Chinese rule runs in Tibetan society.  Chinese commentators have frequently claimed that trouble in Tibet is being stirred up by a small number of criminals and terrorists who want to return the Dalai Lama and his Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism to the throne.  Any slight hint of believability that this narrative has comes from the fact that monastaries, frequently Gelug, have been central to much of the resistance ever since the Chinese first arrived.  Over the last year, however, self-immolations have come from a wider and wider base.  Recent burnings have come from young schoolgirls, middle-aged parents, farmers and nomads, and an aging grandfather.  The community has generally treated them as heroes, with bystanders fighting riot police to keep their bodies out of the hands of the authorities, shops being closed in mourning, entire towns defying restrictions to attend memorials, and cremations of immolators taking place in areas normally reserved for the cremations of high lamas.  Popular singers are composing odes in their honor, protests are following the burnings, and people are risking their safety to send images and videos of the immolations to their friends inside and outside of Tibet.  Most recently there were reports of a two-day hunger strike in late November, undertaken by a number of well-to-do Tibetans in solidarity with the immolators.

Tibetans have been trying to send messages with their immolations, and to some extent they seem to be successfully doing so.  In particular, a cluster of self-immolations near the start of the Party Congress appear to have been an attempt to force incoming leader Xi Jinping to deal with the Tibet issue.  As the toll has risen, the EU, US, and UN have begun to slowly swing into gear.  All three would perhaps rather ignore the issue, but that’s becoming less of an option as the 100th self-immolation approaches.  Although exactly what they’ll do remains to be seen, simply mentioning Tibet during talks with China and then checking off that box is hopefully becoming less feasible.  News of the self-immolation crisis is slowly leaking out within China, too, although Beijing’s (largely successful) efforts to keep the Han Chinese majority from understanding the Tibet issue are complicating the conclusions ordinary Chinese draw from hearing about it.  Finally, given that self-immolations have occurred in every major region of Tibet except for the largely unpopulated Ngari, it seems that immolations as a form of communication between Tibetans, calling them to take action and stand together, are certainly having an effect.

Where it goes from here is going to depend on what the Chinese government does.

No comments:

Post a Comment