On Wednesday a monk named Jamyang Palden, in his 30s, set fire to himself in Qinghai’s Rebkong (in Chinese, Tongren) county in Malho (in Chinese, Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The monk was rushed to the hospital, only to be moved to his monastery following fears he would be arrested by Chinese authorities. Jamyang Palden is the 27th monk to self-immolate in three years, according to sources in the Tibetan and international media.
Self-immolation, which is a painful and prolonged way to die, and even more painful to survive, is a desperate act. To use one’s body as a human torch, blazing light on real or perceived injustices, is usually the last resort of people who feel marginalised and silenced, their voices crushed by oppression. The act also has special significance in some forms of Buddhism, where some experts say they could be an example of disdain for the human body in favour of wisdom and truth. Fourteen people set themselves on fire during the so-called Arab revolutions of 2010/2011. That number has doubled in Tibet in the last year, and yet the response has been subdued.
March is a month of special significance in China and Tibet. March 1959 saw the flight of the Dalai Lama to refuge in India. March 2008 witnessed violent and extended riots in Lhasa and other parts of the Tibetan autonomous region. China will also hold village elections in March, which has traditionally meant raised levels of security. The confluence of these special factors has led to an especially tense month.
This latest horrific incident came in the wake of protests by students in neighbouring Tsekhog, calling for Tibetan language in schools and other rights. The students were reportedly prevented by authorities from leaving the schools.
Protests have spread in many parts of Tibet, involving many dozens of monasteries, where monks are calling for the return of the Dalai Lama and permission to worship, both of which demands China has refused.
Experts suggest that China’s policy of introducing an aggressive anti-Dalai Lama policy may have backfired in the more remote eastern regions of the Tibetan autonomous region.
“I think China miscalculated in the late 90s, by exporting to eastern Tibetan areas aggressive anti-Dalai Lama policies they had been imposing for years in central Tibetan areas,” said Professor Robert Barnett, an expert on Tibet at Columbia University to The Guardian last week. “Since people began to protest the policy has been more hardline.”
Nowhere is China’s interference in Tibetans’ religious affairs more evident than in the so-called ‘Six ones’ policy, which lays out instructions for Temple management Officials: Their duty is to ‘solve the most urgent, real problem facing the family of any monk/nun so as to make them feel the warmth of the party and government’, the manifesto says, but also to maintain a file on each monk or nun, which may aid in ‘preparedness…and understanding.’
Intellectuals tell of arrests, prolonged detentions, re-education camps and, in one case, killing by security forces.
The Dalai Lama has said that he does not encourage self-immolation, but that he admires the courage of those who undertake it. China, meanwhile, has dismissed the incidents as being carried out by criminals, or for personal reasons. They deny that the protests may have anything to do with political or religious dissatisfaction.
The international community’s response has been muted, for several reasons. Primarily, China has effectively shut down Aba province, which is where the majority of the protests are taking place. Journalists are not allowed to enter, or having entered, they are quickly ushered out. One of the first western journalists able to enter the region did so by hiding under some clothes on the floor of a truck crossing the border, to avoid surveillance. Internet and mobile phones have been blocked.
Those who do enter, or who are able to receive information, tell of heavy military presence in Aba, of soldiers lining the streets at 20 metre intervals. Monks tell of intensive ‘re-education’ campaigns, where they are expected to denounce the Dalai Lama.
Tibetans have been demanding self-determination for over four decades now. Their cause has received significant public and celebrity attention, and has influential backers. The Dalai Lama has met with several world leaders, including US president Barack Obama, to detail his country’s woes. However, as long as China is able to keep the unfiltered truth of what is happening in Tibet within the country, and keep the rest of the world out; as long as China’s economic star continues to shine, the future is bleak for Tibetans who dream of their homeland.