October 22, 2020
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In The Light Of Bodies Aflame

By burning themselves, the protesters are shedding light on the sufferings of the larger Tibetan population under the boot heel of China’s tyrannical regime

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In The Light Of Bodies Aflame
AP Photo/ Manish Swarup
In The Light Of Bodies Aflame

The string of self-immolations inside Tibet—started in 2009 by a Kirti Monastery monk Tapey and which most recently on March 30 claimed two monks in Barkham County—sees no sign of letting up. On the contrary, despite one of the harshest crackdowns unleashed by the Chinese government in response—with the state paranoia more acute and the military repression more penetrating than during the clampdown on the 2008 uprisings— and despite the abysmal response from the international community, there seems to be an incredible wind fanning across the occupied Buddhist country that is at once frightening and pregnant with hope.

Just as with the hardened earth onto which have collapsed the 33 self-immolators, 32 of them since last year alone, the landscape of the Tibetan freedom movement now stands irreparably scorched and irredeemably altered.

Outside the Buddhist country, 27-year-old Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation on March 26 at a protest site in Delhi, from which he died two days later, on the eve of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India for the BRICS summit, was the second exile martyrdom. The first was in 1998 when, on the same Jantar Mantar ground, an elderly Thupten Ngodup set himself on fire to protest the Delhi Police’s forcible interruption of a hunger strike organised by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) on its 53rd day. In between, two other Tibetan protestors have attempted self-immolations: one in Bangalore and another outside the Chinese embassy, in the Indian capital.

As Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation flashed across the world in the most shocking images yet of such self-sacrifices, the Indian government, in a shameful capitulation to Beijing, responded by throwing Tibetans in jails en masse. Blanket seals were imposed on the Tibetan colony, Manju Ka Tilla, Tibetan students’ hostel in Rohini, and other such establishments. Delhi Police, it seems, was taking no chances: those with the slightest resemblance to Tibetans — Indian citizens from the northeast as well as from other regions— were picked up from the streets and thrown in jail.

Dislocation of Context

Analysts and observers have attempted various explanations for the horrific protests unfolding at an alarmingly accelerated rate. Many have argued the self-immolations to be anti-Buddhism, citing the spiritual tradition’s strong stance against taking one’s life. Others have pointed to the altruistic motivation of the self-immolators whose fiery protests sought to bring justice to their suffering compatriots inside China-occupied Tibet.

A recurring point of reference has been the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc whose burning profile in meditation pose photographed in 1963 remains one of the most iconic images of self-immolation as a protest form. The Vietnamese self-immolator was protesting against the then President Ngo Ding Dem’s Roman Catholic Administration for its religious persecution of the country’s Buddhist population. Thich Quang Duc and those who followed him were all from the monastic community. The same, to a great extent, is true with Tibetan self-immolators; majority of those who died on the spot and those who survived and were captured by Chinese authorities were monks or nuns.

The parallel, however, stops here.

Stripped of such philosophical rhetoric, the self-immolations seem to bring home three undeniable truths:

  1. The Tibetan freedom struggle is way past its breaking point.
  2. The fiery protests are a natural embodiment of the movement’s radicalisation that was a long time coming
  3. After the Dalai Lama’s resignation from political leadership—anchored in his reconciliatory yet failed Middle Way Approach Policy—the Tibetans inside Tibet, through actions that urgently mirror their tragedy, have reclaimed their role as the true drivers of the Tibetan freedom struggle.

The Politics of Religion

A few commentators have peddled a dangerous distortion of the self-immolators’ intent. Pointing to the monks and nuns who make up the majority of the self-immolators, and their common slogan, “Let the Dalai Lama Return,” they insist the protestors were only demanding greater religious freedom. A common exercise, in that vein, is to cite traditional Tibetan usage of such words as Tendra (Enemy of Faith), as was used for Communist China, and Tensung Thanglang Maggar (Force for the Defence of the Faith), by which the Tibetan resistance fighters from 1950s through early 1970s were known.

Such arguments ignore the wider historical and etymological context that engendered such uniquely dichotomous and paradoxical native vernacular. In the olden Tibet, right up to the eve of the 1949 Chinese invasion, due to the dominant role played by the three seats of Tibetan Buddhism (Gelug, Sakya and Nyingma) and the institution of the Dalai Lamas, Tibet’s religious identity was promoted at the cost of all national and political sovereignty-consolidating initiatives. As Historian Tsering Shakya says in his Dragon in the Land of Snows: A History of Modern Tibet since 1947, the final blow to Tibet’s efforts to garner international support came in the form of its non-existent international personality.

Furthermore, such a simplistic reading discounts the complex role Tibetan monks have played on the national stage, both during factional infightings and in armed struggle against Communist Chinese aggressors. The trenchant rivalry in the early 1940s between the Regent Redring and the incumbent Tagthra, who at various times fronted the Tibetan administration when the Dalai Lama was a minor, saw monks from the two establishments engage in fierce battles. Melvyn Goldstein quoted a witness in his A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State, as saying about the skirmishes: ' gunfire rang incessantly over the Lhasa city.'

Monks, and not just the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, played a pivotal role during the battles for Tibet’s independence in 1912-13 when the last of the Chinese soldiers were driven out of the country. Outlook- Crossword award-winning author Jamyang Norbu has written about the monk-cabinet minister Jampa Tendar who had disrobed and taken up a gun to lead the Tibetan army, and who had, upon Tibetan victory, to a demoralized group of surrendered Chinese soldiers, offered philosophical consolation along the lines of victory and defeat being two sides of the same coin, before packing them off along a safe route back home.

One of the most unforgettable lines from Shadow Circus, Tenzin Sonam and Ritu Sarin’s documentary on the CIA-backed guerrilla resistance in Tibet, belongs to a former monk-freedom fighter who describes the experience of killing Chinese soldiers: “Each time we pulled the trigger and a Chinese soldier fell, we said Om Mani Pedme Hung!”

To say that to those or former monks politics was secondary to religion would be inaccurate. It was just that the language for political identity as defining an individual or a nation was not celebrated. In a vocabulary-rich civilization in which a mere title for a reincarnate lama could fill up pages, the term politics at best stood for administration, or a system to support the flourishing of Buddhism. It warrants mentioning that in olden Tibet while flags and banners of every religious stripe were ubiquitous on rooftops of every monastery and select households, similar hoisting of the Tibetan national flag, outside the military exercises of the ragtag Tibetan army, became popular only after the Tibetans were forced into exile.

This however cannot be construed to mean the Tibetans didn’t hold paramount their allegiance to the nation’s political sovereignty. Just as it is wrong to argue that in their call for freedom for Tibet, or even return of His Holiness, the self-immolators were not staging a pointed political defiance to end the 53 years of China’s bloody occupation.

Rage and Rejection

However horrific or gruesome, self-immolation is, in essence, an act of conflating one’s body with space. In the case of self-immolators inside Tibet, if any religious connotation comes close, it seems to be the concept of Lu ski Chonme Phul wa (offering one’s body as flame) in that by burning themselves these courageous protestors were shedding light on the sufferings of the larger Tibetan population under the boot heel of China’s tyrannical regime. By turning themselves into human bonfire, they were projecting the most visible, the most visceral face to tens of thousands of others who, following more traditional forms of resistance (protests, pamphleteering, posters-circulating et all) are inevitably arrested, imprisoned and tortured, their subsequent fate unanimously sealed between deaths in prisons or release, after many years, back into the society as empty, broken shells.

Self-immolation, on the other hand, grants the protestor greater control over his body and a precious finality to his expression of resistance. One burns, one dies, refusing his tormentors any claim over his body. It bequeaths the protestor an unequivocal rejection of the oppressor state: the Communist Chinese government. Instead of languishing in another construct of colonialism such as a lock-up or a prison, one collapses and returns to the uncorrupted land of his birthright. His body on fire is his slogan, as are his vocal utterances for freedom for Tibet and return of His Holiness, which once released the expectation is that there will be no revocation, of the kind normally extracted by Chinese soldiers through intense torture.

While guided by the Buddhist motive of benefiting others, the self-immolators seem to be equally driven by anger at the Chinese government, and not just for its unrelenting religious persecutions, most recently through the state-enforced patriotic re-education campaign instituted in 1994, which makes it mandatory for a monk or a nun to, among other avowals, pledge allegiance to the Communist Chinese government, denounce the Dalai Lama as a counter-revolutionary and a separatist, and accept the Chinese -appointed Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama over the candidate chosen by the Dalai Lama; Gedun Choekyi Nyima was abducted, at age six, in 1995 and his whereabouts have since remained unknown.

To the monks, perennially exposed to arrests and expulsion, torture and deaths, for simply wanting to practice Buddhism in its true form, China’s oppressive policies toward their religion are recognizable for their singular message: Buddhism and Communist China simply cannot co-exist.

Conversely, this realization lays bare the contradiction inherent in the Dalai Lama's Middle Way Approach, which hopes for a scenario in which Communist China would allow for Tibet cultural autonomy as a reward for giving up its independence. It doesn’t seem impossible, hence, that the self-immolations are also a direct response to the failure of the Middle Way Approach Policy, which frames dialogue with China an end in itself, as opposed to being a means to an end. If this passive strategy required its proponents to wait and bide its time, the self-immolators have demonstrated it to be an unviable option.

In a note left behind by one of the early monk-self immolators, he had written: “Let alone living under the Communist China for one more day, I can not even live for one more minute.”

The Unspoken Communication

The acceleration of self-immolations became noticeable a week after Dr. Lobsang Sangay assumed office of the exile Tibetan government’s prime minister in April 2011, following the Dalai Lama’s announcement of complete retirement from the political scene. The first self-immolation in Tibet had taken place in February 2009 when a young Kirti Monastery monk Tapay had set himself on fire; Chinese soldiers shot at him and took him away. A second one, involving Phuntsog from the same monastery, occurred two years later, full five months before the historic shift in exile polity. At the swearing-in ceremony, the new Kalon Tripa intoned, “Let me be clear: the Tibetan Administration does not encourage protest (in Tibet) in part because we cannot forget the harsh response Chinese authorities hand down in the face of free and peaceful expression.”

Within a week, a third self-immolation was reported from inside Tibet.

Since then, on an average, three to four such protests every month have taken place in Tibet, mostly concentrated in erstwhile Kham and Amdo provinces. The fiery self-sacrifices have prompted massive gatherings, which have, on at least two occasions, erupted in open revolt; in January, Chinese soldiers shot into two protests, killing at least ten protestors.

When Lobsang Sangay, in his speech, reminded the exile Tibetan gathering that it was not to him alone the Dalai Lama had devolved his power, it might have been the self-immolators who took his concluding refrain to heart: “Let us never forget: during our lifetime, our freedom struggle will meet the fate of justice or defeat. Tibet will either appear or disappear from the map of the world.”

This synchronicity of events is not accidental. An invisible communication line connects the Tibetans inside Tibet and their exile counterparts. The dialogue is unspoken and it is cryptic. No instructions, no orders, no appeals are involved. Over the Himalayan divide at least, no overt call to action is made. Given this scenario, China’s allegation of the Dalai Lama and the exile Tibetan government being behind the self-immolations is absurd. During the 2008 uprisings in Tibet, when hundreds of Tibetans were killed or were reported missing, the best advice the exile leadership had for the remaining others who risked similar fate was to exercise “restraint.” Still, a slight movement in Dharamsala continues to affect events inside the Chinese-occupied region, just as it does in the opposite direction.

The uprising between 1987 through 1989 serve as a good example. The revolts, which began with a protest on September 27, 1987 outside the Jokhang Cathedral in Lhasa, had their roots in a more sombre event halfway across the world: the Dalai Lama’s address to the U.S Congressional Human Rights Caucus. The Tibetan leader had never before been accorded such a high-level platform which opportunity he used to introduce his Five Point Peace Plan, the last of which items, “Negotiations on the future status of Tibet and the relationship between the Tibetan and Chinese peoples should be started in earnest,” was the first hint at what would later become his Middle Way Approach Policy.

As Jampa Tsering, one of the first monk-protestors from the nearby Ganden Monastery, said, “We knew the risks were enormous, but we had to do something. We felt staying silent would be construed to mean we agreed with China’s defamation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” The exiled Tibetan leader’s recent global spotlight had irked Beijing and its propaganda had stepped up its denunciation campaigns, accusing the Dalai Lama of colluding with “Western Imperialists” to carry out their “splittist” designs on Tibet. And so, one September morning, Jampa Tsering and his 20 fellow monk-protestors took three rounds of the famous shrine, then took out their hand-drawn Tibetan flags and shouted slogans demanding independence for Tibet. Within minutes Chinese soldiers showed up, beat up the protestors and drove them away. But the façade of calm that had reigned for less than last three decades had cracked. This unprecedented defiance sparked off a series of open revolts and thanks to images smuggled out by western tourists Tibet was yet again in newspaper headlines.

The 2008 uprisings that shocked the world had begun with a procession by some 300 monks from Drepung Monastery to Lhasa’s city centre. The monks’ main demand was the release of Drepung monks who had been detained in October of the previous year for whitewashing a wall in celebration of the conferment of the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. The protest kicked off a wave of uprisings that spread across the entire Tibetan plateau, with an unprecedented participation by not only monks and nuns, but laypeople of all ages and backgrounds; the Chinese paramilitary crackdown that followed spawned the bloodiest reprisals the country had seen since the 1980s uprisings.

The exile Free Tibet movement responded in kind. Activists across the world successfully stripped the Chinese Olympics Torch Relay of its perceived glory and turned Beijing’s bid for international legitimacy into a magnet for epic shame. A renewed vigour was injected into Tibet’s struggle for freedom; a new sense of hope prevailed. Hundreds of exiles and supporters embarked on a walk to Tibet and when the Indian police forcibly stopped the return march, just outside Tibet’s border with India, their collective spirit had already set foot on the Tibetan soil. In India, in Nepal and elsewhere in the world, activists from Tibetan Youth Congress, Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Women’s Association, and other organizations, forged an unbroken link of protests and other campaigns, including hunger strikes, which pulled any illusion of respite over its occupation of Tibet from under Beijing’s feet.

For the exile administration of former Prime Minister Prof. Samdhong Rinpoche, waiting for Beijing to talk seemed to the endgame; the Free Tibet activists had brought the fight to China’s door. The only autonomy being realized, across the diaspora, was a certain decentralization of the Tibet movement. While Tibetans’ spiritual allegiance to His Holiness remained unwavering, every second Tibetan on social network sites such as Facebook had a new middle name: “Rangzen (independence).”

The Birth of Second Exile Martyr

Against this background, the self-immolation in Delhi by Jamphel Yeshi assumes immeasurable importance. The recent escapee from Tibet, by all accounts an unassuming youth with a devout bend of mind and an indefatigable appetite for Tibetan history, bolted across the Tibetan protest site, in a raging cloud of fire. If, on account of the media blackout in Tibet, the 30-odd self-immolators’ sacrifices were relayed through a few grainy and obscure images, Jamphel Yeshi’s searing figure more than filled up the naked eye of the camera.

Just as the self-immolators inside Tibet had projected a visible front to the tens of thousands of other traditional protestors whose actions, as well as their fate, had been rendered invisible by China’s strong arm, Jamphel Yeshi, in one single stroke, amplified the new radicalisation of the Tibetan freedom struggle. The Tibet self-immolations had been given an intimate face. By the time he succumbed to his burns two days later, his blazing profile was captured by the major national and international media. The massive 2008 uprisings made it to the cover of the New York Times only once; the featured image was that of Chinese soldiers behind plastic shields. When Jamphel Yeshi reclaimed the attention in the same paper a day after his self-immolation, the image was that of a man on fire, as befitting the country he stood for.

Comparisons, in the case of Tibet self-immolations, have been drawn to the Tunisian fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-sacrifice triggered the Arab Spring. It is, however, more likely that when the Kirti Monk Tapey self-immolated in February 2009, he had been inspired by Thupten Ngodup, the 1998 Tibetan self-immolator.

Martyr Jamphel Yeshi only helped draw the circle full.

Topden Tsering is a writer living in Berkeley in California. His writings have appeared in San Francisco Chronicle, Himal, Global Post, IndiaSite, Berkeley Daily Planet, among other publications. A former editor of the Tibetan Bulletin and president of the San Francisco Chapter of Tibetan Youth Congress, he's also a film enthusiast who's not only written about films but has made several music videos and experimental shorts for Youtube.

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