Chasing the darkness of oppression


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BETWEEN February 2009 and March 2013, Tibet has seen one hundred seven people setting themselves on fire to challenge Chinese rule over their home-land. However, the first case of self-immolation by a Tibetan took place in April 1998, when Thupten Ngodup set himself on fire in New Delhi. Thupten was involved in an indefinite hunger strike organized by the Tibetan Youth Congress. Since then, numerous journalists, writers, scholars and Tibet experts have written about and analyzed self-immolation, its rationale and triggers. My brief note examines this non-violent action and reflects on the reasons why so many Tibetans have self-immolated in recent years.

On 8 January 2012, forty year old Lama Soepa set himself ablaze at a Chinese police station in Darlak, a small town in Golog region of northeastern Tibet. Sonam Wangyal – also known as Lama Soepa and born in Gade in Golog – was a highly realized spiritual master and social worker. He studied Buddhism at Dungkyob Monastery and was well-respected in the locality for his compassion and concern for others’ welfare. He established a home for the elderly, taught Buddhism in the local community and, in the last year of his life, opened a primary school giving free education to children from impoverished families.

Lama Soepa’s self-immolation and his audio message are amongst the most trenchant responses to China’s mounting attack on Tibet’s culture and spiritual heritage. His action was a clear declaration that however Beijing may try and control a Tibetan’s life through daily dictates, ultimately he alone has control over his mind and body. What is more, his action was aimed not only towards Tibetans but all living beings. In his last message he says: ‘I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them… to Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to a state of enlightenment.’ Therein lies the strength of Lama Soepa’s spiritual values that could not be destroyed by endless political campaigns and physical destruction.

The Chinese Communist Party’s aggression on Tibetan Buddhism dates back to 1935 during the Long March when the Red Army tore down Lhateng Monastery in Ngaba. The monastery housed over two thousand monks. This was long before the Communists took power in Beijing and more than two decades before their occupation of Tibet. As the rag-tag army walked through eastern Tibet they confiscated grain stored in the monasteries and villages, leading to the region’s first-ever famine. After its invasion of Tibet, Beijing imposed one disastrous campaign after another, culminating with the decade-long Cultural Revolution during which over ninety per cent of Tibet’s monasteries and their ancient scriptures and priceless statues and paintings were destroyed. Today, the aim is to erase any trace of Tibetan identity, and in this the Communist Party is employing subtler, yet more insidious, tools.


In July 2007, China’s State Religious Affairs Bureau issued Order No. Five, which is a set of regulations for the CCP to determine and control the reincarnations of Tibetan lamas. This is an ultimate level of interference in Tibetan spiritual traditions and a gross violation of the freedom of religion as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in China’s own Constitution. In Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation is a unique system of successive rebirths of spiritual masters and when a lama passes away his reincarnation is recognized through centuries old traditional methods. This continuity of the lineage is essential for transmitting the accumulated wisdom of the lama to the new incarnation, who in turn will transmit it to a new generation.

Not satisfied with its regulations to control the reincarnation system, the Chinese authorities have also re-launched and intensified the ‘Patriotic Re-education Campaign’ throughout Tibet. This is enforced particularly harshly in monasteries and nunneries where monks and nuns are required to study and give written tests to pledge opposition to ‘separatism’, to deny Tibet was ever – or should ever be – independent from China and to agree that the Dalai Lama is destroying the unity of the Motherland. Failure to provide answers, and indicate that their loyalties lie with Beijing, can result in monks and nuns being branded as potential troublemakers, which in turn can lead to expulsion from their religious institution, and persecution. Millions of red flags and portraits of Mao and other Chinese leaders were distributed throughout Tibet in early 2012, and monasteries ordered to display them in place of photographs of the Dalai Lama and leading lamas.


For China the power of Buddhism and its culture to act as a common thread binding Tibetans into a unified force and giving them a sense of national identity constitutes a threat to its legitimacy to rule Tibet. For spiritual practitioners such as Lama Soepa, Buddhism constitutes the core and the very essence of their lives. They have left behind their families and renounced the world to pursue a life of spiritual training. Attacks on Buddhism are a fundamental transgression in this sacred realm where the exploration into the inner mind triumphs over all other affairs. Such infringements of their vows are exacerbated by the absence of any civil channels to air their grievances. It is this factor that is often driving monks and nuns to sacrifice themselves through fire.

Thirty-seven monks and nuns have set themselves ablaze. However, this series of fiery protests in Tibet has not been confined to the clergy. Since 2009, an equally large number of civilians have chosen this non-violent action. On 3 March 2012, nineteen year old student, Tsering Kyi set herself on fire in Machu, a town located on the banks of the longest river in Asia. Tsering was born to a small nomadic family and joined school at the age of ten. She was an avid reader who engaged herself in study and won a place in her school’s honour board. That morning, Tsering emerged from a public toilet engulfed in flames, a fist raised defiantly. As she was running towards the local market, the Chinese vegetable vendors blocked her path and pelted stones at her burning body. She died on the spot. Tsering’s self-immolation was a result of two of Beijing’s most insidious policies in Tibet – the forced resettlement of nomads and the imposition of Chinese as the medium of instruction in Tibetan schools.


In 1956, Zhu De, Commander-in-Chief of the People’s Liberation Army and Vice Chairman of the Communist Party, ordered that ‘all nomadic herdsmen [in Tibet] should settle in order to facilitate socialist transformation and socialist construction.’ This was during the height of enforcing ‘democratic reforms’ in eastern Tibet. This policy was carried out to prevent nomads from roaming with their herds of yaks and sheep across vast distances of pastures – a lifestyle that placed them beyond the control of authorities. By September 1958, ‘46,000 Tibetan herdsmen, who only a short time ago still basically lived in a feudalistic society, have now ...singing and dancing, reached heaven in one stride, taking them into People’s Communes in which are carried the seeds of communism’, reported the Party Secretary of Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in present-day Gansu.

An estimated 2.5 million nomads live on the Tibetan Plateau. For centuries they have skilfully managed their livestock and sustained the land while adapting to the realities of the plateau’s fragile ecosystem. The permanent settlement of nomads began in a more systematic way in the 1990s under China’s ‘Western Development Campaign’. Claiming environmental protection as the reason for fencing off pasturelands and settling nomads, Beijing imposed a ban on grazing to reverse the ‘supposed’ degradation of pastoral regions and continues to blame the ‘primitive’ and ‘unscientific’ way of life of nomads. However, the current crisis in the pastoral regions is more due to China’s failed policies such as compulsory collectivization, the imposition of production quotas and collectivized herding, which have led to the degradation of grasslands and destruction of traditional sustainable methods of pasture management.


Since 2002, the Chinese authorities have been implementing large-scale human resettlement, land confiscation and fencing policies in nomadic communities which have drastically curtailed their livelihoods. These radical policies require the nomads to sell their livestock to Chinese-owned slaughterhouses and then force them into concrete-block colonies built in inhospitable locations such as disused prison sites, where there is neither drinking water nor electricity.

Tsering Kyi’s family was one of thousands affected by this policy. While she was still a child, her nomadic family was forced to settle on a small plot of land. Barbed wire now stands menacingly between them and the high pastures. The ancient practice of herds roaming freely over the grasslands has come to an end. As a result, jobless and frustrated young nomads have been driven to alcoholism, gambling and internecine communal disputes around shrinking resources. Over nine thousand years of Tibet’s mobile civilization, and its knowledge of nature accumulated over centuries, has been shelved and rendered useless.

For a new generation of Tibetans such as Tsering, the problems do not end here. The loss of their traditional way of life is made worse by an uncertain future. Tsering was a bright student and a good singer but, like her nomadic lifestyle, her desire to excel in Tibetan language and culture was also coming to an end.

In October 2010, the Chinese authorities in Amdo (Ch. Qinghai) passed a law to replace Tibetan with Chinese as the medium of instruction at all educational institutions. In response, more than three thousand Tibetans, including Tsering, took to the streets to demand freedom for Tibet and the right to study their own language. In fact, Tsering’s school became the centre of activism, and the security forces cracked down fast and swift. Hundreds were detained and the headmaster of her school was sacked.


In addition to the protests, Tibetans wrote letters of appeal to Beijing, including one signed by hundreds of teachers from schools in Amdo in which they wrote: ‘If both the spoken and written language of a people die, then it is as if the entire population of that people has died and the people have been decimated.’ For Tibetans, language is the pulsating heart of their culture and identity. Like water, it sustains Tibet as a country and Tibetans as a people; like air, it acts as the medium for Tibet’s religion, music, literature and history. The destruction of the Tibetan language is the destruction of its culture and identity.

This language policy enforced in northeastern Tibet in 2010 has been in effect since 1997 in the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. The policy – alongside mass political education and ideological indoctrination in schools – underscores China’s determination to instil the ideology of ‘unity of the Motherland’ and ‘opposition to splittism’ into Tibetan children. A leaked Chinese official document issued in May 2011 focuses on the need to ‘strengthen education in dialectical materialism and historical materialism in classes on ideological and political theories.’ In language reminiscent of the Cold War era, the document instructs cadres to ‘deepen the development of resources for political ideological education in various classes.’

Thus, Beijing’s education policy in Tibet has been to win over the loyalty of generations of Tibetans through mandatory education in Chinese and by consistently sidelining the Tibetan language. This is clearly highlighted in an appeal letter to China’s new President, Xi Jinping, by the international Tibetan Studies community. They wrote: ‘We know the value of Tibet’s civilization and we regret that the Tibetan language, which is its fundamental support, is seemingly marginalized and devalued …’ in Tibet.


As a child growing up in a nomadic community, Tsering Kyi experienced China’s policy to forcefully settle Tibetan nomads first-hand; as a student, she discovered that the Tibetan language would no longer be taught in her school. Deprived of everything that she knew – and aware that there were no other avenues to express her dissent – Tsering chose the last nonviolent resort. She was one of twenty three nomads who have self-immolated since 2009. Two months before she set herself on fire, Tsering told a relative that, ‘We should do something – life is meaningless if we don’t do something for Tibet.’

Immediately after her self-immolation, the police took away her body and confiscated the mobile phones of everyone at the scene. Tsering was the first self-immolator that China officially acknowledged. But adding insult to injury, the state owned news media declared that she was ‘suffering from depression’ and was ‘mentally unstable’.

The fiery challenges to China’s rule that have been taking place in eastern Tibet since 2009 have now spread all across the plateau, including Lhasa. On 27 May 2012, two young men set themselves on fire in front of the Jokhang, the holiest temple in Tibet, which is located at the heart of the city and which bristles with police and paramilitary forces. Nineteen year old Dorjee Tseten was a chef in a small restaurant called Nyima Ling and his friend, twenty four year old Dhargye, was a cashier at the same eatery.

This was the first self-immolation protest in Lhasa, which has been under tightened security since the nationwide uprising of 2008. Within fifteen minutes the security forces had snuffed out the fires and cleaned the area. ‘Not a trace of the incident was left at the site’, one witness told Radio Free Asia. As a knee-jerk reaction, Beijing unleashed more paramilitary forces and hundreds of Tibetans from eastern Tibet who have their homes in Lhasa were arbitrarily expelled.


In August 2012, three months after Dorjee Tseten and Dhargye’s self-immolations, state-run China Central Television announced Lhasa to be the ‘happiest city’ in China. Local officials were even more effusive in showering accolades. Che Dalha, the Party Secretary for Lhasa, told Time magazine that ‘[t]he sun in Lhasa is the brightest and people in Lhasa are the happiest.’ Ecstatic propaganda is only one face of the drama. As the officials were crowning Lhasa China’s ‘happiest city’, large numbers of Public Security Bureau, People’s Armed Police and other security forces were setting up checkpoints and scanning any Tibetan coming into the city. Tibetans from other regions wanting to live there are now required to produce official permits, while the Han immigrants arriving daily in large numbers by train face no such regulations.

Lhasa, like many other Tibetan cities, now houses more Hans than Tibetans. The number of monks in the major monasteries in and around the city has also been drastically reduced. Drepung Monastery, one of the three largest monastic universities in Tibet, had 1200 monks in 2008; today there are only 400. This decrease is due to strict CCP religious policies and regulations, such as expelling monks who are not from the locality and requiring official permits to join a monastery. Before China’s invasion of Tibet, the monk body at Drepung was around twelve thousand.


Beijing’s destructive policies also extend further afield. Large-scale mining and damming of Tibet’s rivers not only cause irreparable damage to the plateau’s fragile ecosystem, but also impact millions of people in riparian Asian countries. Mining has been happening in Tibet since the 1960s. However, today’s large-scale mining began in the 1980s and 1990s with a flood of Han immigration and the laying of railways lines. Mines are now mostly leased out to private enterprises that scour the length and breadth of the Tibetan plateau with little or no environmental restrictions or guidelines. They mine gold, copper, coal, chromite, asbestos, aluminium, potassium, zinc and uranium. The immediate impact on Tibetan lives includes forced evictions, polluted drinking water, encroachment on farmlands and loss of livelihood.

Gyama, a town near Lhasa, is the birthplace of the seventh century Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo. Like much of Tibet, it is rich in natural resources and, like in other Tibetan regions, China has been extracting copper, lead, zinc, gold and silver for decades. In 2007, the National Enterprise and the China Gold Group took over the mining rights in Gyama and today up to 12,000 tons of earth is being dug out daily. The local river is polluted, leaving the inhabitants with no water for drinking or irrigation.

Likewise, in 2010 a government owned cement factory in Labrang, eastern Tibet, spewed chemical residues poisoning the grasslands, forests and livestock. The attempt by villagers to resolve the crisis peacefully by submitting a petition to the authorities was answered with a brutal crackdown. Fifteen Tibetans were injured from police bullets and beatings.

Rampant mining across Tibet, and the absence of any channels to address Tibetan grievances, drove thirty four year old Tsering Dhondup to set himself on fire at a mining site in Amchok, near Labrang, on 20 November 2012. Dhondup was the father of three young children. Five days later, eighteen year old Kunchok Tsering self-immolated at the same mining site. Tsering is survived by his nineteen year old wife and his parents.


The average age of the one hundred seven self-immolators is around twenty five. The Chinese official allegation that many of them were mentally unstable or had criminal backgrounds is pure fiction. These were ordinary people doing extraordinary things. There is no sacrifice greater than of eighteen year old Nangdrol, who self-immolated on 19 February 2012, stating in his last words: ‘The time has come for me to leave, for the sake of the Tibetan people, by lighting my life on fire.’ Or seventeen year old nun, Sangye Dolma, who doused herself in petrol and, while engulfed in flames, shouted, ‘Independence for Tibet!’

There are clear indications that their actions did not wholly stem out of desperation, since desperation is accompanied by hopelessness, disheartenment and wretchedness. This is clearly articulated by poet/writer Gudrup, who self-immolated on 29 September 2012. In his last message he wrote that ‘the coming new year of the Water Dragon [2013] brings you health, success, and the fulfillment of aspirations.’ Likewise, twenty four year old Kelsang Kyab, who set himself on fire on 27 November 2012, wrote with great optimism that ‘the sun of happiness will shine for Tibet.’

The fundamental challenge for China’s leaders is not to identify and foil individuals – in whichever town, village or nomadic tent – who are ready to self-immolate, but rather to recognize the fact that an overwhelming majority of Tibetans are against Beijing’s occupation of their home-land. Beijing must recognize that each Tibetan is a potential self-immolator. This crisis point has come because of the flawed policies that China continues to impose on Tibet and its refusal to provide a lasting solution for the governance of Tibet that is in tune with basic Tibetan aspiration.

The challenge for the UN and the international community is to understand the complex reasons behind self-immolations and to address them by taking concrete political steps. Any failure to do so casts a permanent shadow on Tibet’s half-century long non-violent struggle for freedom. Today, Tibet is the litmus test in a world where everyone condemns violence and aspires to achieve lasting peace by solving global conflicts through dialogue. The lack of courage shown by world leaders in facing up to China and the UN’s insomniac silence, could spiral the future of the Tibetan struggle into directions that no one wants it to take. Worse still, these evasive attitudes send a dispiriting signal to other people fighting for freedom that non-violence is not a tenable path.