Twelve Tibetan nuns, monks, and former monks have self-immolated in the eastern part of what was once Tibet since last March, in an act of desperation amidst renewed Chinese repression. Eight of them were between age 17 and 21. At least seven have died.
Last month, the world’s eyes were shocked by the video footage showing a 35-year-old Tibetan nun, Palden Choetso, setting herself on fire in a busy street in Tawu, in China’s Sichuan province (the Tibetan Amdo), and standing there for a few seconds, folded in flames, as if her reasons and determination were even stronger than the harshest pain we could ever think of. Just a few weeks later, last Thursday, Tenzin Phuntsok, a 46-year-old former monk from the Chamdo area, in the so-called “Autonomous” Province of Tibet, carried out the same ultimate sacrifice. He was the twelfth Tibetan this year to do so.
It all started on March 16th at the Kirti Monastery in Ngaba, in northern Sichuan. This Buddhist monastery had witnessed a violent crackdown by China’s State security forces during the March 2008 protests, that left at least ten Tibetans dead. On the third anniversary of the bloodshed (and only weeks after Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia marked the starting point of the Arab Spring), a 21-year-old monk from Kirti, Phuntsok Jarutsang, set himself on fire. Beaten by the police – before they even started extinguishing the flames – he died shortly after in hospital. His act was imitated in the following days and weeks by other monks and nuns, mainly from the same monastery, and then in Kardze and other parts of Eastern Tibet. Eight of them were between age 17 and 21. At least seven were killed by the flames.
In the weeks that followed, the People’s Armed Police returned to the monastery. As senior monks were removed, hundreds of paramilitary were permanently deployed on the premises, with the task of preventing more self-immolations through a campaign of “patriotic re-education”. In April, hundreds of monks were forced into army trucks and taken away, to an unknown location. A group of Tibetan locals who camped next to the monastery with the intention of protecting the monks and not letting them be taken away were violently beaten by the police. Two elderly were killed on this occasion.
More recently, a series of photos has started circulating that shows lines of monks being publicly exhibited by the special anti-riot police with signs displaying their names in Chinese characters and the word “separatist” hanging from their necks.
But the recrudescence of Chinese repression has not stopped the self-immolations, because the Tibetan monks and nuns feel that the extreme sacrifice of their lives is the only means they have to express their concern for their identity, their culture, their religion – and the very safety of their fellow Tibetans. Setting oneself on fire is not a traditional nor a ritual practice for Tibetans, and nuns or monks haven’t adopted this form of protest – or this ultimate cry for help – until very recent years. If they decide to do this, it is really out of desperation: because they see no way out.
The Dalai Lama has publicly deplored this form of sacrifice: it takes “very strong courage” to commit such an act, he said. “But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilize your wisdom.”
The Karmapa (one of the highest authorities of Tibetan Buddhism) as well, though recognizing that behind such “desperate acts” there is “pure motivation”, has regretted their reoccurrence, calling instead for Tibetans to “preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet.”
“The incidents are a clear indication of the genuine grievances of the Tibetans and their sense of deep resentment and despair over the prevailing conditions in Tibet”, explained for his part Lobsang Sangay, Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile. But as far as the Chinese authorities, the response is always the same: the monks and nuns who set themselves on fire are “disguised terrorists” following the separatist plan orchestrated by the Dalai Lama. Beijing is (or rather, pretends to be) always as blind, even in front of the odd, impressive glare that bursts out of a human body wholly set ablaze. And there’s more: it expects of each one of us that we are just as blind.