Friday, January 17, 2014

“powerful acts of powerlessness” and “expressions of desperation”…"with so little clear effect"

I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them—each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts –to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas. – Lama Sobha, in his final testimony, after setting himself afire on January 8, 2012. The testimony was found after his death, recorded in a tape cassette, wrapped in his robes.

“123 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009.  All but one of those self-immolations has occurred in the last two years. The latest took place this past November.

The number of self-immolations peaked in 2012, with 85 taking place that year. There were 27 in 2013.

102 of the self-immolators have died.

19 of the self-immolators were women.

The two oldest were in their sixties. The youngest was 15. In all, 31 were teenagers, 59 were in their twenties, 13 in their thirties, eight in their forties, and three in their fifties. 53 were between 18 and 24 years old.

Not many details about the work of the self-immolators have emerged, so the record is incomplete. But what is known is that 40 were monks, 12 were former monks, six were students, four were nomads, three were farmers, one was a forest guard, and one was a writer. 13 have been reported to be parents–nine fathers and four mothers.

But what exactly did these 123 citizens hope to achieve through self-immolation? What difference has it made? And what, if any, change has occurred as a result of the self-immolations?” [….]
All of Tibet is essentially under lockdown. “Tibet” here corresponds roughly to what the Chinese government has designated the Tibet Autonomous Region, plus Tibetan areas of the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai. It’s a huge area–five times the size of France. [….]

Chinese-ruled Tibet, by contrast, is a totalitarian society under military occupation. No independent reporting is allowed in Tibet. Chinese reporters must serve the state, and their reporting is more tightly controlled than in China. Indeed, almost all Chinese reporting from Tibet comes directly from Xinhua, the official state news organ. Foreign reporters are not allowed in Tibet except when accompanied by government minders on government-controlled itineraries.

Given such tight control of information, it’s amazing how much has gotten out about the self-immolations and other news the Chinese government would prefer no one know about. Most information that ‘escapes’ from there is sent out via cell phone and internet by ordinary people to Tibetan exiles, news organizations such as Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and Tibet advocacy groups such as International Campaign for Tibet, Free Tibet and the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

Still, even though news of the self-immolations has emerged, I wonder whether or not there is any other place in the world where so many people could have killed themselves in such dramatic fashion with so little clear effect. [….] 

The self-immolations are almost certainly related to the demonstrations of 2008 that swept across Tibetan areas, the largest and most widespread since the Chinese occupation of Tibet began in 1950. (The first self-immolation of 2011 occurred on March 16, marking the third anniversary of those demonstrations.) The Chinese government’s response to the 2008 demonstrations was– as has been its response to almost every act of Tibetan self-assertion over the last thirty years—to increase political, religious, cultural, social, and economic repression.

Within this context, one can read the self-immolations as being one of the few remaining acts Tibetans feel they have at their disposal. The scope of action for the average Tibetan in advocating for the basic rights of his or her people has been narrowed to basically zero; the Chinese government has shut down just about every avenue.
Considering that there is no tradition of self-immolation as a form of protest in Tibetan history, and that the act is controversial from the Buddhist point of view, the self-immolations are a sign of just how heavy the repression is. Each is like a statement: What else do we have left? Many of the self-immolations have occurred in areas where the 2008 demonstrations were the biggest and where, subsequently, the Chinese government crackdown has been the hardest.

Few of the self-immolators have left messages that have found their way to the outside world. Many are reported to have shouted, while on fire, calls for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet and for Tibetan freedom, as well as opposition to Chinese rule. More generally, it appears that their reasons have also included concerns about cultural rights, religious rights, language rights, land rights, rights over natural resources, freedom of movement, and freedom to be educated as they wish.

It appears that the self-immolations have not been strategic, coordinated, calculated, or instrumentalist. That is to say, the self-immolators did not have a plan, according to which, if they set themselves on fire, this would happen, and then this, leading to this concrete result. The self-immolations were political protest but not pragmatic. If they hoped to be catalysts of change, it was not in the immediate sense of setting off a chain reaction. They were powerful acts of powerlessness. They were expressions of desperation without being acts of despair.”

Please see the entire piece by Tenzin Tharchen (‘the pseudonym of a commentator living in China’) at The Reporters, Inc.

For a “basic reading guide” on self-immolation (as ‘fire suicide’ or ‘auto-cremation’) see here.


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