Krittivas Mukherjee – Straits Times
New Delhi. Every time news of a suicide by immolation drifts in from their homeland across the mighty Himalayas, many Tibetan exiles in India’s hill town of Dharamsala gather to hail one more “sacrifice” in their fight against what they see as a brutalizing Chinese rule in Tibet.
Fifty-one Tibetans have set themselves on fire over the past three years, 38 in this year alone and mostly fatally, to protest against the repression in Tibet by the Chinese authorities, activists say.
Most self-immolators were young, with some in their teens, indicating that a new generation of politically aware Tibetans may have lost patience with their exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama’s conciliatory “middle way” philosophy that calls for an autonomous Tibet within China.
Tibetan officials from Dharamsala, headquarters of the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile, and Beijing have held nine rounds of talks since 2002 but achieved little of significance.
Beijing insists it has brought peace and prosperity and denies trampling on Tibetan rights since it occupied the region in 1950. In 1959, the Dalai Lama fled to northern India after a failed uprising.
“There is frustration, there is a restlessness that one associates with young people, especially when you see that your sacrifices are not yielding the desired result,” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, told The Straits Times.
“When you are left with no other form of protest what do you do then? But we are discouraging drastic action like self-immolations. Ours is a path of non-violence,” he continued.
China, which calls the Dalai Lama, 77, a “splittist,” has held him responsible for inciting the acts of self-immolation.
To be fair, the spiritual leader’s condemnation of the spate of self-immolations has been less than forceful. In May, addressing a CNN-organized chat show in London, he was asked whether he denounced the acts of self-immolation. “It is a sensitive political issue. I have retired from political responsibilities… no answer,” he replied.
It is exactly this kind of response from the Dalai Lama that China cites to argue that what is happening now is possibly the beginning of a new type of political engagement in Tibet, a pattern very different from the 50-year-long campaign the Buddhist leader had so far led.
Accusing the Dalai Lama of playing up tension in the Tibetan areas, Chinese media commentator Yi Duo said, “It shows the Dalai group’s separatism is becoming more extreme and violent.”
In Dharamsala, young Tibetans often call for a sharper goal than the “middle way,” even as they reverently display the Dalai Lama’s portrait. They see his non-violent, passive movement as wasted on an unrelenting Chinese leadership. There are about 100,000 Tibetans in India, about 75 percent of whom live in and around Dharamsala.
“We want the Chinese and the world to look at what is happening. These self-immolations are totally passive, but they convey a very effective message which may not agree with the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism,” says Neema (who uses only one name), a member of the Tibetan Women’s Association.
But why have Tibetans chosen a form of protest that is not acceptable to their faith?
Experts say it is possible that Tibetans, having heard about the Arab Spring, and in their frustration over the lack of progress in the talks with Beijing, see self-immolation as a strong form of protest.
“In this case, these self-immolations are clearly seen by the local community not as a suicide by a desperate individual but as an act of dedication for the benefit of others,” said Professor Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University.
“It sends a message to the government in a way that the protesters hope will not be easy to brush aside because it does not do damage to other people or to property, and does not involve unrest,” he said in an interview with Asia Society in February.
The sharpest critic of the “middle way” is the Tibetan Youth Congress, whose charter speaks of a struggle for independence “even at the cost of one’s life” – a position that many in China use as evidence to brand the group as terrorists.
For Sangay, the self-immolations signal a long-drawn-out Arab Spring inside Tibet that the world should pay more attention to.
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times