Why the protest?


back to issue

FRIENDS, for those of you who have come from different parts of India, and from around the world as a tourist to Dharamshala and have joined us in the vigil this evening I would like to speak in English. You didn’t understand what my friends have earlier spoken in Tibetan.

Two young Tibetans set themselves on fire protesting the ongoing Chinese occupation and the brutal repression in Tibet yesterday, and died. And we are doing this solidarity vigil carrying candles in our hands and saying prayers for them. The number of self-immolations has been rising and has now reached a staggering104. The two youngsters, Rinchen, 17 and Sonam Dhargyal, 18, self-immolated in Kyangtsa area of Zoege district in Amdo Region of Eastern Tibet. They succumbed to their burn injuries.

I know it doesn’t explain much when I say ‘self-immolation’ because the whole concept of self-immolation does not exist in the English language. The whole western world has no concept of immolating himself or herself for a sacred cause. The closest reference is that of the Joan of Arc being burnt to death on the stake for heresy, or maybe Jesus Christ being crucified – but nobody burns himself or herself for the greater cause of freedom or justice or for a country. But this is happening in our struggle, in the whole Tibetan community. And this is not just one or two, 15 or 50 cases; it has gone up to 104 cases as of today.

Now, I will explain briefly why people in Tibet are burning themselves. Why are they not carrying placards? Why are they not carrying candles, for example, like we are doing today? Why aren’t Tibetans going out into the streets and demanding freedom and democracy just as people around the world do? It’s a very simple and rational question. And that is what everybody is asking around the world: Why are Tibetans burning themselves in this way? Why can’t they shout slogans, write letters or petitions?

Friends, this is the 64th year of Chinese occupation of Tibet. And it has come to such a situation that petitioning, street protests, raising slogans or asking for amendments in the law – all these – are not possible, beyond reach, done and finished. The situation in Tibet has come to such a point of distrust and disappointment that the relationship between the subject, that is the Tibetans and the ruler, that is the colonial Chinese government in Tibet, is of fear and suspicion. When the Tibetans come out on the streets and protest, raising their empty fists and demanding freedom, they are shot dead in the middle of the street and their bodies cleaned up, as if nothing happened.


There is no international media and there are no travellers there to report and witness what is happening. It has come to such a draconian rule where nobody’s able to see what is happening and nobody is able to report. CNN, BBC, and ABC, all of them have attempted to go to Tibet. They came right up to the borders of Tibet from China and from there they have been sent back and they have been threatened that their visas would be cancelled if they resist or try to go into Tibet. This is how Tibet has been locked down and has come to experience such a level of control.

Now why are Tibetans protesting in the first place? China’s occupation of Tibet, the invasion that happened in 1949 and the occupation that has been going on since then, has today come to such a level where China is mining in Tibet, blowing up mountains, and cutting down trees. China is trying to resettle nomads, thereby grabbing land that is traditionally Tibetan. The farmer nomads are losing their lands ending up as dishwashers in Chinese guesthouses and takeaways.

Young Tibetans cannot get Tibetan education as most Tibetan textbooks are being replaced by Chinese textbooks, monks and nuns cannot receive their religious education, many new rules and regulations are imposed; Tibetans are banned from carrying the photograph of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

China is basically trying to usher in globalization into Tibet which is already consuming China to such a level where they can easily exploit the population and all their natural resources. As I speak English here, with some difficulty, because all the countries that you belong to, whether you’re coming from the United States or from Europe or even from India, your countries do not support our freedom struggle because your country’s economy is directly related to or is benefiting from the trade with China.


And, therefore, even though you stand with us, and you have so much respect for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and for the Tibetan culture, your government is directly dealing with China and they are, actually, directly benefiting from this. And this nexus of trade between the western countries and the Chinese government is further helping the Chinese government to maintain a tighter control over Tibet. The Tibetans are silenced and threatened so that they (Chinese) can continue to drain the natural resources out of Tibet. And it’s not just Tibet. But other occupied countries such as East Turkistan and Southern Mongolia. And what about the Chinese people? Millions and millions of Chinese people have been taken advantage of and exploited to make them into slaves who will continue to produce cheap ‘Made in China’ products.

Therefore, the issue of Tibet today is not just a Tibetan people’s cause or just a Chinese or Tibetan conflict; it is a global issue! Global trade is weighing down on the Tibetans. The pain and suffering that our people are undergoing in Tibet is partly because western countries trade with China; everybody has a responsibility and they must own it. It is not enough for President Barack Obama or Angela Merkel to pose for a photograph with His Holiness and shake his hand. It is not enough, we will not take it! We understand that these photo-ops benefit the profile building of these international leaders. But not when in fact you are actually benefiting from trade with China, not realizing that it is causing pain and suffering in our country.


But what I want to say here is that even when we see 104 cases of self-immolation, Tibetans have not given up on non-violence. Our commitment to non-violence has been further strengthened and we know that our commitment is growing stronger and stronger and we will not give up on this because this is our strength. And we know that we will continue to do this. There will be a time when your countries will no longer be able to run a profitable business with China and that will be the time when you will look for other trading options. Only then you will come out in support of Tibet. But then it will be too late. For the environment in Tibet and in China would have been damaged and deteriorated to such a an extent that Asian countries receiving waters from Tibet will be in major danger. Particularly India. India will suffer because of the damage that will show up in future years. And, therefore, all Asian countries that receive waters from Tibet have every reason to support Tibet today, and now.

This is an opportunity for everybody to be with Tibet. First, for moral reasons. Second, for world peace. And third, for basic environmental reasons that have to do with global trade and economy. Everybody will benefit from this. And, therefore, instead of looking for temporary business interest from China you must look at the long-term interest of all these countries.

Today, as I speak we once again look at self-immolations in Tibet where Tibetans are left with no other option other than immolating themselves. And it pains us so much. Deeply, every one of us. When we have to look at this and with great difficulty we have to explain to our brothers and sisters in Tibet that the international community instead of supporting us is benefiting from the global trade with China, which feeds on natural resources from occupied countries like Tibet, East Turkestan and Southern Mongolia, and the cheap slave labour of the Chinese people.

No Tibetan wants to see another self-immolation. No one! None of us! But we are having to see it because people inside Tibet are not giving up. They are continuing to resist. We only have deep respect for them. Everywhere, around the world, people are building armies and terrorist networks to kill enemies. But we have a culture, which instead of encouraging, inspiring, sponsoring or even training people to fight other people with violence, trains and encourages people to forgive the enemy. Instead of looking at them as an enemy we look at them as teachers. This is the culture that we practise. This is where we come from. This is our strength! And with this we will continue to resist.

And therefore, in Tibet, when people are left with no other option but burning themselves to death, when the world is taken over by the culture of violence, either state or individual terrorism, when young people around the world quickly resort to violence while demanding freedom and justice, Tibetans in Tibet maintain an unrelenting commitment to non-violence. Therefore Tibet is the conscience of the world.

The self-immolators appeal to the conscience of the Chinese people and people of the world. This is the time we should stand together and truly be the conscience we all want to be. And all nations, when they talk about human rights and democracy, here is a country that most deserves their support because Tibet is the conscience of the world.


* Public speech by Tibetan activist and writer Tenzin Tsundue at the solidarity candlelight vigil held in Dharamshala, North India, after the 104th Tibet self-immolation on 20 February 2013. Recorded and transcribed by Irine.