DHARAMSALA, INDIA — More than 100 Tibetans have now attempted to sacrifice their lives since 2009, publicly setting themselves on fire to protest oppressive policies in Tibetan areas of China.
Candle flames light the faces of Tibetan exiles in the small Himalayan town of Dharamsala, India. Here at the Dalai Lama’s temple: a vigil for the Tibetans who have self-immolated to protest Chinese policies. Tibet Parliament-in-exile member Kalsang Damdul says Beijing claims the suicides are organized and inspired by the Dalai Lama.
"They are totally spontaneous individual acts out of desperation. The situation in Tibet is so difficult - there is no opportunity for protest, for freedom of speech, so they are taking this drastic action," he said.
The immolations have drawn the world’s attention, but done little to change Beijing’s policies. Some analysts say the Dalai Lama should do more to stop the suicides. However, others like Fulbright fellow Patrick Dowd say the Tibetan spiritual leader is in a difficult position.
"If he comes out against the immolations then we have had 100 immolators, and he is saying their actions are wrong. How are their families going to cope with this idea? If he comes out and supports the immolations, the Chinese are obviously going to feel affirmed in their claims that this is all being instigated by the Dalai Lama," said Dowd.
Of the 100 self-immolators, at least 82 have died. Sonam’s nephew was one of them. He spent a week in a hospital before succumbing to his burns.
"Inside too much burn, outside too much burn. He cannot live," he said. "He requested them to let him die: ‘I need to die for my country, for my people,’ he said.”
"It is very tragic. I think everyone in this community lives in dread of hearing that afternoon announcement: Someone will go by with a loudspeaker and announce another immolation. There is a lot of sadness. But at the same time, I think there is a sense of pride that these people are sacrificing themselves for their nation and for their people, and that that sacrifice should be honored," said Fulbright fellow Patrick Dowd.
Tzering’s closest cousin also died after setting himself on fire. Despite the sadness, the young man says Tibetans feel pity for the Chinese, not anger.
“I want to tell the Tibetan, don’t lose your hope," he said. "Your every individual effort will continue to make a difference in the world. So, never give up. No matter what will happen to us, we are going to face every challenge.”
For 54 years, Tibetans have made Dharamsala their home-in-exile. Despite all that time, people here remain optimistic that one day there will be an end to the suffering of their friends and relatives living in China-controlled Tibet.
The faces, voices and names of two sources for this article have been altered to protect their identity.