Why Tibetans self-immolate


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TIBETAN self-immolation involves multiple issues that nobody quite knows how to handle. First, the increasing frequency of the self-immolations – 97 cases in Tibet (excluding five outside Tibet) till 11 December 2012, out of which one took place in 2009, 12 in 2011 and 84 in 2012; 28 Tibetans self-immolated in November 2012 alone. The appeals to stop self-immolations have not worked and nobody knows what to do.

Second, it poses a dilemma as far too many people have set themselves on fire. Negating self-immolations would be grossly unfair to them and hurt the feelings of their families. On the other hand, reporting, praising, holding prayer ceremonies, paying condolences and donations could well be seen as encouraging even more people to self-immolate.

Third, the government has criminalized self-immolations, which are a result of its own policy of repression; moreover, it continues to repress, thereby further intensifying the phenomena. Thus, those who try to stop self-immolations on humanitarian grounds find themselves tangled with the government.

Fourth, though outsiders sympathize with the self-immolators, they cannot understand the behaviour as they do not see the act as being effective. After the initial shock, with the increasing number of self-immolations, they have become numb.

Fifth, the Tibetan elites routinely complain about the silence of the international community and Chinese intelligentsia. However, they do not realize that this actually reflects a lack of theoretical support to the self-immolation movement. The Tibetan elites, besides affirming self-immolations, clearly lack the substantive insight to provide effective leadership.

Sixth, all governments have so far taken an evasive stand towards the Tibetans for their own selfish interests. In a world where ‘economy’ rules, it is not surprising to understand the rationale of economized men. Though Tibetans get more than their share of attention as compared to the other nationalities (condition of the Uyghurs is worse), the feeling of being abandoned remains.

To resolve this issue, or at least decide on how to respond, we have to first know what the aspirations of the self-immolators are and what is it that they seek. There are different interpretations, with different people viewing immolations the way they want to. With little information available to us about the self-immolators, it is possible that a statistical analysis might enable us to move closer to constructing a more complete picture of the self-immolations.

Since the first self-immolation in Tibet by Tabey in 2009, Woeser has been simultaneously recording each and every case of self-immolation, consolidating all the cases and periodically updating her blog, Invisible Tibet. In this article, the information used in my statistical analysis has been taken from her record.

But first, let me stress that the primary responsibility for self-immolations is of the Chinese government and there should be no doubt about this.


In the monthly breakdown of self-immolations for 2012 (see the graph below), we see the two tallest bars for March (10 cases) and November (28 cases). The month of March has many anniversaries such as the Tibetan National Uprising Day (10 March), anniversary of 2008 pan-Tibet protests (14 March), anniversary of mass killing of protesters in Ngaba (16 March), the Chinese government-invented ‘Serf Emancipation Day’ (28 March); so we can reasonably postulate that the tall bar for March has something to do with these occasions. Generally, they can be seen as a protest against the ethnic policies of the Chinese. To protest appears to be the main motive.


The tallest bar, however, falls in November, the month when the 18th Party Congress of CCP was held. The earlier bar, for October, is as tall as for March, 10 cases each. This might also be related to the time of the Party Congress, which was widely expected to be held in October. Frequent self-immolations around the Party Congress can be understood as seeking to induce a new generation of Chinese leaders to change their policy on Tibet, like seeing self-immolations as actions pushing for change. This might actually be a key to understanding the self-immolations.

Self-immolations by Tibetans inside Tibet in 2012

Analyzing the last words of the self-immolators is another way to further understand their motives and aspirations. I analyze all the last words left behind by the self-immolators before self-immolating – handwritten pieces, voice recordings and also those that were verbally communicated to their relatives and friends. So far we have the last words of 26 self-immolators. In addition, slogans shouted by many self-immolators have also been recorded and these slogans are more or less consistent, most of them being, ‘Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet’, and ‘Free Tibet’. Comparatively speaking, the last words written before self-immolating are more comprehensive in content than the slogans shouted while burning; hence they are more worthy of special analysis.

I have classified the last words into seven categories by content (see accompanying table). Each last word does not necessarily indicate only one type of content; there are different types in many of them (a more detailed classification can be seen in the notes at the end of the article). This is my approach in attempting to understand the self-immolations; others are free to use their own approach.

Last word classification

No. of last words involved

No. of self-immolators involved

Ratio of/no. of self-immolators to no. of self-immolators who left a record of last words (%)

Because it’s unbearable




Expressing courage and responsibility




Protests and demands




Demanding attention from the international community




Praying for the Dalai Lama




Demanding Tibet’s independence




As an action




Note: As there are cases of two self-immolators leaving one last word, so the number of self-immolators who left last words is not the same as the number of last words.


From the classification, in the accompanying table, we can derive the following conclusions:

* Self-immolations actually do not represent an act of desperation, unlike the common interpretation – including by officials of the Tibetan government-in-exile – that the self-immolations are desperate acts caused by the unbearable conditions. Though we cannot disregard this claim, this rationale explains only 19% of the cases, a small percentage of the seven classifications.

* The self-immolators inside Tibet are not invoking support of the international community though it is widely believed that self-immolations are a way of drawing the attention of the international community. However, except for the writer Godrup, none of the last words mentioned this as a reason and so this has the lowest weightage in the list. It only reveals that the Tibetans inside Tibet do not actually rely on the international community, as some people take for granted. In fact, it is the self-immolators outside Tibet (not included in the table above) who seek international support; Jamphel Yeshi mentioned it twice in his last words and Sherab Tsedor called for international attention for the Tibet crisis. To seek the support of the international community has actually been the main objective of the Tibetans outside Tibet; it is where they continue to focus. This is the major difference between the Tibetans within and out of Tibet.

* The protests and demands in the self-immolations are known. 19% of the last words express protests and demands, but while self-immolating, those who shouted slogans like ‘Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet’, ‘Free Tibet’, ‘Release the 11th Panchen Lama’, ‘We want language rights’, and so on, are also expressing their protest and demands, and thus also need to be counted. Besides, though a majority of the self-immolators have not left any last words, the act of self-immolation is in itself an act of protest.

* Those that best reflect the Tibetan national spirit and courage. Out of all the last words, 35% express courage and responsibility. This category is actually not directed towards others (neither the authorities nor the international community), but rather it is more a reflection of heroism in the personality itself. It is a nirvana-like self-sublimation performed by defending dignity, sharing pain, inspiring courage and expressing solidarity. Some typical last words like ‘Setting myself on fire for the dignity of the Tibetan nation’ (Bhenchen Kyi), or ‘If they think we are afraid of the repression, they are mistaken’ (Phuntsok), reflect the most precious power of spirit of the Tibetan people.

* As acts of religious dedication. Self-immolations as acts of praying for the Dalai Lama (while a protest against the authorities) account for 38% of the last words, second in the list of classifications. There are cases in this category that also have elements of expressing courage and responsibility; these are dedications and offerings of a religious nature. For example, Sopa Rinpoche in his last words said that he is offering his life and body to the Dalai Lama and even the entire sentient beings. It is not easy for non-religious people to understand this – setting one’s own body on fire as an offering for nothing else but merit.

* About Tibet’s independence. Four self-immolators clearly call for independence of Tibet in their last words; yet another says to ‘defend the country Tibet by self-immolating’ (Tamding Thar) – this category has 19%. Several others also shouted slogans for Tibetan independence while self-immolating. Since 2008, the desire for independence has spread widely among the Tibetans. However, unlike the Tibetan writer in exile, Jamyang Norbu, who equates all those who call for the return of the Dalai Lama with the demand for Tibet’s independence (see Make it a Burning Issue), the analogy appears somewhat far-fetched.

* Self-immolations as a call to action. Fourteen self-immolators in their last words appeal to their compatriots to act. This category has the highest weightage (54%). Like the ‘most frequent’ cases of self-immolation during the 18th Party Congress, the self-immolators expected that their sacrifice would help realize the goal, not merely express protest and desperation even though they were actually not confident if the self-immolations would really help realize their goal. Tenzin Phuntsok, in his last words, says that he ‘cannot live to wait in vain.’ These really sad words should actually be a key to understanding the self-immolations.


Those inside Tibet have finally realized that the struggle has to rely on their own strength and resources. The Tibetan issue has not made any progress for many years now even as many Tibetans continue to hope that others would do something for them. For long the Tibetans inside Tibet pinned their hopes on those outside Tibet, just as those outside Tibet initially pinned their hopes on the international community and then on the Chinese government. The basic strategy has always been that the international community would put pressure on the Chinese government to make concessions.

The Dalai Lama’s success in gaining the support of the international community has been widely acknowledged. He has become a universally celebrated global icon and many people in the West are overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Tibetan cause. But as far as seeking concrete support of the outside world is concerned, all we got was sympathy and no more can be expected. Even when China was in dire need of western assistance in the 1980s, it did not make any concession on the Tibetan issue. The chances that the West can successfully put pressure on a ‘rising’ China to make concessions are slim.


In 2002, China resumed the stalled Sino-Tibetan dialogue and thereafter held a series of talks with the envoys of the Dalai Lama till 2008. From the start, China’s design was to appease the western world for ensuring the successful hosting of the Olympic Games. However, the exiled Tibetans saw it as a rare opportunity and expected substantial progress. Tibetans in Tibet too patiently waited in optimism. Eventually, however, on the eve of the Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama in his speech on the occasion of March 10 Uprising Day, was forced to admit that, ‘My envoys have held six rounds of talks with the Chinese government, but sadly, no substantial result has come on basic issue; on the contrary, the Chinese government has even intensified its repression on the Tibetans in Tibet.’

The Dalai Lama’s announcement represented his last attempt to call for international pressure on China. But anyone familiar with the working of the CCP should have known that there would be no concession, even if the Olympics could not be hosted. Unsurprisingly, the subsequent actions of the West proved ineffective, with even the normally tough French softening their stance in the end. These inconvenient facts are proof that the Tibetan exile government’s strategy – to gain concessions through international community – has never worked.

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama’s announcement awakened the Tibetans inside Tibet. Their patience finally wore out with the endless waiting, during which the Panchen Lama was imprisoned, the Karmapa forced to flee, and the Dalai Lama was constantly defamed and demonized. So many years of waiting had produced ‘no substantial outcome’ in the end. When the Sera monks first heard the announcement, someone immediately said, ‘We must rise up now’, and the monks took to the streets of Lhasa with snow-lion flags in their hands and shouted slogans. This was the beginning of the 2008 pan-Tibet protests. In the afternoon of 10 March, hundreds of Drepung monks protested and the Chinese so-called ‘March 14 incident’ rapidly spread across the Tibetan plateau.


According to Woeser, the current self-immolation protests are a continuation of the 2008 pan-Tibet protests. In fact, they are a continuation of what the first Sera monk said, ‘We must rise up now’.

Though people who lack resources and are not organized cannot achieve much, one can imagine the kind of 2008 street protests. When people are frustrated, even a tiny spark can ignite a raging fire, helping mobs to quickly converge and expand. Though in small societies a mob protest may even be able to force change, in large societies like China, minorities cannot achieve this. In 1989, even when tens of millions of Chinese took to the streets in many parts of China, the regime did not hesitate to use repression and shed blood. With the Tibetan population accounting for only a tiny fraction of Chinese, can they hope to be an exception? When soldiers and policemen are deployed everywhere in large numbers, public protest becomes all the more difficult and ‘must rise up’ can only be the result of individual behaviour. How can a mere individual resist the mighty power of the state? Even after the 2008 Tibetan protests ended in repression, many individual Tibetans continued to take to the streets, shouting slogans and distributing leaflets. But the outcome was always the same – they all quietly disappeared. How can individual actions burst out of this disappointing submersion? One way is to resort to more extreme ways of protests. As the writer Godrup says in his last words, ‘Let’s intensify our peaceful struggle.’ Self-immolation is the most extreme act of struggle an individual can resort to.

The frequency of self-immolation cases is indeed rising at an alarming rate. With self-immolations increasingly seen throughout the world and reported, recorded, prayed for, paid condolences, many other Tibetans note this and conclude that immolation is an effective individual protest action and may thus follow the examples. Now with more and more Tibetans setting themselves alight, it has become a self-immolation movement.


Like the 2008 Tibet protest, the self-immolation movement too was sparked off by monks. Starting with Tapey from Kirti monastery setting himself on fire in February 2009, all the initial 12 self-immolators were monks (I consider those who were expelled from their monasteries after the 2008 protests as monks). It was only in December 2011 that the first layperson self-immolated. In the first quarter of 2012, 15 out of the 20 who self-immolated were monks; in the second and third quarters, laypersons were already in a majority; in the first 70 days of the fourth quarter, of the 50 who self-immolated, 43 were laypersons.

When thinking about why the ordinary Tibetan people joined the self-immolation movement, I recalled what a Tibetan woman once said to me, ‘Except for giving birth to a couple of more children, I’m not capable of doing anything else for our nation.’ Similar feelings can be deduced from the last-words of Tenzin Khedup and Ngawang Norphel: ‘We are neither able to contribute anything for our culture and religion, nor do we have the ability to help the Tibetan people economically. So we choose to self-immolate.’

61 year old Dhondup repeatedly appealed to the monks and young Tibetans not to self-immolate and retain their lives so that they could contribute to the nation’s cause in future, signalling that only the older generation should self-immolate. Once the ordinary people come to believe that apart from knowledge and wealth, self-immolations too might work for the cause, they might be aroused to resist the authorities and courageously go forward to self-immolate.


At such times, it is not surprising that Karmapa Rinpoche’s appeal to them to not self-immolate due to life being precious did not work, as they specifically wanted to sacrifice what was most precious to them. Woeser, Arja Rinpoche and the poet Kathup Tsering also appealed to Tibetans to not self-immolate, pleading that only by being alive would it be possible to do something effective. Their attempts also failed because the self-immolators did not know what they could do by being alive, but felt that self-immolations might at least break the prevailing silence. Therefore, these brave Tibetans need to be told what else they can do besides self-immolation, not asked to remain alive to merely remain mute spectators waiting in vain.

Self-immolations should be seen not only as a protest against the oppressors, but also as criticism of the leaders. I don’t feel comfortable about what I’m going to discuss now; digging out the in-depth meaning of self-immolations should actually be done among the Tibetans themselves. But, after seeing so many lives lost, I have no option but to leave my own hesitation and concerns aside.


In the battlefield, blaming the enemy for killing is not just wrong, but useless. To win, the more valuable action would be self-reflection and improvement. The sacrifice of the self-immolators becomes a waste if one merely limits oneself to condemning the oppressors. Tibetans in Tibet are waiting for the government in exile to do something. They are coming forward and setting themselves on fire one after another; the government in exile should at least realize that the path it has taken needs to be reviewed. The path that the older generation took might have been necessary during their times, but the Tibetans in Tibet, through self-immolations, are now pleading to the new exile leaders not to pursue the same path.

So far, there is no sign that the exile administration realizes this. In answering a question in an interview to Asia Weekly whether he was confident of resolving the Tibet issue through negotiations with the Chinese government, Sikyong Lobsang Sangay said, ‘Of course, I’m confident. There was a Chinese scholar who once said that Tibet issue could be immediately resolved if there is an open-minded person who figures out how to deal with the issue. I too think that way.’ This outdated way of thinking makes one recall the 1980s. After Lobsang Sangay assumed office, he has been travelling around the world, meeting political dignitaries, giving interviews to media, attending meetings; everything that he has done is to trace exactly the same path of gaining international support by putting pressure on China to make concessions. As for winning support of the international community, the Dalai Lama has already done it all. It was fine once, and maybe even twice, but not the third time. Despite the failures of 1989 and 2008, after twice hitting the wall, the exile government is repeating the same strategy for the third time.

Perhaps the self-immolation movement in Tibet is seen as a new opportunity. A Tibetan called Weirang wrote in an overseas site, ‘Tibetans did not self-immolate in vain. Recently there were many large-scale Tibetan protests in Amdo; these are the results of the self-immolations… I believe, one day, like in 2008, massive protests will once again sweep across Tibet.’ He criticized those Tibetans who appealed to not self-immolate and said, ‘This is ridiculous. In case the appeal to stop the self-immolations succeeds, then our compatriots would have died in vain and our struggle will be halted.’


The way Weirang thinks is indeed worrisome. When self-immolation is considered as a means to achieve a political end, one would naturally wish for more Tibetans to set themselves on fire. Forget about the deeper existential questions of right and wrong, what Weirang thinks disregards the ‘moral high ground’, as if in politics all that matters is achieving the goal and that too by any means. Even if we think in terms of achieving a political goal, self-immolations won’t achieve it. Further, suppose self-immolations lead to pan-Tibet protests like that of 2008 (though given the prevailing tense situation, it is difficult now), then what? The Chinese could ruthlessly suppress the 2008 protests; why should this time be any different?

It could be that politicians to whom the end goal means everything, may indeed expect (even hope) such repression to be repeated. Because such repression would draw international attention; when more blood is shed, more pressure would be put on China by the international community. However, here we come back to the previous argument; self-immolation is just a different strategy, the outcome would again be the same. An authoritarian power neither cares about the self-immolations, nor is it scared of shedding blood. The international community didn’t turn tough on China for the June 4 massacre. This time on Tibet too it is unlikely. In a nutshell, whatever is happening in reality does not controvert this very fact – relying on international support to resolve the Tibet issue is nothing more than an illusion.


Even as an increase in the number of self-immolations has drawn the attention of the international community, all the governments are avoiding giving offence to the Chinese government. Meanwhile, they are also giving more support to the exile Tibetans, in part to balance morality and also appease their own peoples. But in this case, only the Tibetans in exile can enjoy this support. And, although getting something is better than nothing, I do not believe that it is this support that makes the Tibetans in exile to expect more self-immolations by the Tibetans in Tibet.

Tibet needs to get out of the crisis. For this to happen Tibetans outside Tibet need to steer the struggle for freedom to make the millions of Tibetans inside Tibet become the main force in the struggle. When Tibetans in Tibet know where the path is, they will live and advance towards the promising future, not jump into the flames.

What follows is a detailed classification of the last words of the self-immolators’.

1. Because it’s unbearable. Phuntsok – I can’t go on bearing the pain in my heart, I’ll show the world a signal. Rangdol – Unable to continue staying under this harshness, can’t tolerate this torture without trace. Tsering Kyi – Nobody wants to live this way, Tamding Tso – It’s really difficult for us Tibetans, if we can’t even keep His Holiness’ photos, then we don’t have any freedom. Sangdak Tsering – Tibet has no freedom, His Holiness is not allowed to return, Panchen Rinpoche has been imprisoned. Besides, so many martyrs have self-immolated, therefore, I too don’t want to live, there’s no meaning in living.

2. Expressing courage and responsibility: Phuntsok – They think that we would be afraid of oppression, they are mistaken. Tenzin Phuntsok – All the khenpos and monks of the Karma Monastery would rather die. Sopa Rinpoche – All the other self-immolators are also like me; they sacrificed their lives for truth and justice …I too am willing to offer my body to support and respect. Rangdol – Hold your heads high for nation’s dignity. Choepak Kyab and Sonam – Setting on fire for the basic human rights of Tibetans and world peace; for the nation’s freedom, prosperity of Dharma and happiness of all sentient beings. Rikyo – Willing to endure pain for all the suffering sentient beings. Khenpo Thupten Nyendak told his family prior to his self-immolation that he would soon make a grand offering to those who had self-immolated for the common cause of Tibetans. Bhenchen Kyi said to her friend before self-immolation, ‘We have no freedom. I’m self-immolating for the dignity of Tibetan nation.’

3. Protests and demands. The New York Times reported that ‘Tapey has left a piece of paper, saying that he would commit suicide in case the government banned the religious ceremony.’ Lhamo Kyab, a Tibetan in Tibet wrote an article saying that Lhamo Kyab had, prior to his self-immolation, asked about ‘when the 18th Party Congress would be held?’ Nyingkar Tashi – Release the Panchen Rinpoche, let His Holiness the Dalai Lama return! I self-immolate to protest against the Chinese government.

4. Demanding attention from the international community. Godrup – Unbiased peoples around the world please pay attention to justice; I wish people of the world support us.

5. Praying for the Dalai Lama. Rickyo – For His Holiness to return to Tibet; Sopa Rinpoche – I want to offer my life and body. It is for the long life of the leader of the heaven and earth His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual leaders, I offer my life and body as mandala to them; may the merit and power of this offering enable all sentient beings attain the Buddhahood in future. Rangdol – May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live long! Tamding Thar – May His Holiness the Dalai return home! Tenzin Khedup and Ngawang Norphel – We self-immolate for the Tibetan nation, especially for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live long and return to Tibet as soon as possible. Godrup – To greet His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return is the weal and woe all people of this snow land share and our collective goal. Samdup – May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live long; may the light of happiness shine on the land of snows. Kelsang Jinpa – For equality of nationalities, freedom of Tibet, promotion of Tibetan language, and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return, I’ve decided to self-immolate. Nyinkar Tashi – Let His Holiness the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.

6. Demanding Tibet’s independence. Godrup – After regaining independence for Tibet, to greet His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return is the weal and woe; all people of this snow land share our collective goal. Nyinkar Tashi – Tibet needs freedom, independence. Tamding Thar – To defend the country (Tibet), I’m self-immolating. Rangdol – May the Tibetan nation break away from the Han monsters! Sangay Dolma – Tibetans need freedom and independence.

7. Self-immolation as a call to action. Tenzin Phuntsok – When I think of Tibet and this year’s sufferings of the Karma Monastery, I can’t live to wait in vain. When I think of the plight of the khenpos and monks, what is the use of worrying? Let’s rise up! Sopa Rinpoche – Support and respect by offering my flesh and blood. Choepak Kyab and Sonam – Self-immolate for the suffering of Tibetan nation having no basic human rights and for realizing world peace. Rikyo – For His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come back to Tibet. Tamding Thar – To defend Tibet country, I’m self-immolating. Tenzin Khedup and Ngawang Norphel – We are neither able to contribute anything for our culture and religion, nor do we have the ability to help the Tibetan people economically. So we self-immolate for the Tibetan nation, especially for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live long and return to Tibet as soon as possible. Godrup – To testify and propagate the true situation inside Tibet, we need to intensify our struggle, self-immolate to call for Tibet’s independence. Dhondup – Always appeal to the monks of Labrang Monastery and the local young Tibetans to not self-immolate; they should retain lives to contribute to the nation’s future… Only (he and) other older people should choose to self-immolate. Samdup – I self-immolate for Tibet. Kelsang Jinpa – For equality of nationalities, freedom of Tibet, promotion of Tibetan language, and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return, I’ve decided to self-immolate. Kalsang Kyab – Before self-immolation, called his cousin brother on the phone and said, ‘I’m going to self-immolate today for our nation’s cause.’ Lobsang Gedun – Told on the phone before self-immolation, ‘I have a wish, people from all the three regions of Tibet get united, stop infighting and disputes, only then our wishes will come true.’


* ‘Last Words Analysis: Why Tibetans Self-immolate’ by Wang Lixiong, SunAffairs Weekly 35. Translated by Ogyen Kyab.