Self-Immolation: the voice of Tibetans

Nov. 5, 2012, 1:15 a.m.

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

It has been over 53 years since the Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetan exiles first set foot in Tezpur, India. Who knows when they will be able to set foot on their native soil again.

Growing up as a Tibetan, I share my people’s agony and the dire need to return to our homeland. I write this not only to shed light on the Tibetan issue, but to urge all of you living in a free country to come to the aid of my people’s cause before it is too late.

In the high plateaus of Tibet, the Tibetan population is diminishing as the Chinese government encourages mass Han Chinese migration to the area. The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway in 2006 further acted as a catalyst to the Sinicization of Tibet, resulting in the ongoing degeneration of Tibetan identity, culture and religion. The Chinese government’s effort to halt the flow of information out of Tibet has been a consistent success in enlarging the gap between fact and cynical fabrication. By enchanting the world community with its make-believe stories of Tibet’s history and current situation, the Chinese government has been able to control the dissemination of factual information and mute international criticism.

The recent wave of Tibetan self-immolations and protests reflect pervasive anger over the lack of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Tibet under the Chinese government. In the early morning of Dec. 17, 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire and fanned the flames of the Tunisian Revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Since February of 2009, at least 62 Tibetans have self-immolated inside Tibet, and all but 10 have died. In October 2012 alone, 10 people self-immolated. So why haven’t the Tibetan self-immolations received as much attention as the Bouazizi incident?

Revolutions against tyranny can never really succeed until they become the right thing at the right time. Bouazizi’s sacrifice took place at an opportune moment, and he became a catalyst for a wave of revolts that shook the Middle East. That is why the recent string of Tibetan self-immolations have failed to stir up the political clamor that Bouazizi started.

Second, Tibetan Buddhism plays a central role in the lives of Tibetans. The Dalai Lama, our religious leader, has a special place in our hearts. The Chinese Communist Party’s constant accusation of the Dalai Lama as a “splittist” and as the mastermind behind the self-immolations is a direct assailment on our faith and belief. Since the 2008 Tibetan unrest and the subsequent crackdown inside Tibet, the Communist Party has been reluctant to find the root cause of this calamity, but instead accuses the Dalai Lama for inciting a spate of protests and self-immolations in Tibet. It is no accident that after every political uproar in Tibet, Chinese authorities move quickly to confiscate pictures, videos and bodies of the self-immolators; they are well aware of the impact of such iconic demonstrations.

Self-immolations by Tibetans reflect a deep sense of despair and affliction. In accordance with our deep faith in Tibetan Buddhism, self-immolation is not and should not be viewed as suicide. In the words of Jampa Gyaco Geshe Rinpoche, “The self-immolation of the Tibetan monks, nuns and laymen do not violate the Buddhist teachings of no killing, nor is it contrary to Buddhist views, nor does it violate any other religious commandment, because their motivation and purpose is in no way contaminated by selfish personal gain, but rather is done to protect and sustain the Buddhist doctrine, to fight for democracy and freedom of the Tibetan people.”

For nearly six decades, China has violently suppressed Tibet. Tibet’s hope for political, ethnic, cultural and religious sovereignty has been diminished by the minute. With absolutely no avenues through which to exercise fundamental rights, self-immolation has become the sole way to raise awareness on the Tibetan issue. It is the Communist regime and its repressive policies over many years that have driven Tibetans inside Tibet to such extreme actions.

Self-immolation is a very painful yet exceptionally courageous act. Some critics beg the people of Tibet to seek other ways of expressing their feelings. But when the rights of the people come not from their creator, as they should, but are instead controlled by an oppressive government and its leaders, Tibetans have few other options.

As the citizen of a free country built on the principles of a free republic, I urge you to have a better understanding of the occurring self-immolations and help us in bringing change to Tibet. Tibetans’ pain and sense of crisis should not be difficult to understand.

Tenzin Topden ‘14

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