News / Asia

Tibetan Activists Adopt Self-Immolation As Political Tool

A Tibetan monk holds a flag as he takes part in a day-long hunger strike in New Delhi, October 19, 2011.
A Tibetan monk holds a flag as he takes part in a day-long hunger strike in New Delhi, October 19, 2011.

In recent months several Tibetan monks and nuns have set themselves on fire to protest China's rule in Tibet.  The attempted suicides have drawn an angry response from Beijing officials who claim the protests are linked to acts of terrorism and sponsored by the Dalai Lama. The harrowing incidents mark an escalation in tactics opposing Beijing’s rule.

Since May, nine Tibetans have tried to commit suicide by setting themselves on fire.  The most recent was the first woman, a Buddhist nun.  Five monks have died from their wounds.  All of those who have attempted political suicide have been under 24 years old.

As in the other suicide attempts, the Buddhist nun named Tenzin Wangmo shouted out protest slogans calling for the end of China's rule, for religious freedom and for the exiled Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet.

Most suicides have taken place in the small town Aba, in Sichuan Province which neighbors Tibet and has large Tibetan communities.

Chinese governement reacts

The Chinese government says the acts, which have sparked other protests around the region, go against the beliefs and scriptures of Buddhism.

But Columbia University Tibetan scholar at Robert Barnett disagrees.

"There are records, a very few, but references to self-immolation as a religious practice in the mythical past, where people did it to show devotion to Buddha.  So we can not say completely that this is not a Buddhist practice, it has happened in the ancient past," he said.

But unlike ancient history, all of the recent self-immolations have been viewed as political statements.  Tibetan exile groups have held candlelight vigils to remember those they call martyrs and urged others to not let their actions be forgotten.

Unprecedented motivations

Barnett says the taking of one's life by self-immolation as a political demonstration is unprecedented in the Tibetan protest community.

"We have to be clear.  This form of protest by burning oneself to death or setting oneself on fire is really completely new in modern Tibet," said Barnett. "We do not really have any precedent for this...  As a political practice this is completely new."

The self-immolations started after the Chinese authorities in Beijing ordered a curb on religious freedom by forcing monks into patriotic education sessions.  Officials made monks renounce their spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and study communism.

The monks protested vocally in their monasteries so the Chinese authorities took action.

They placed small police stations inside some monasteries and cut off water and electricity supplies at others.

Once the self-immolations began, authorities responded by sending in more riot police to Aba to prevent copycat suicide attacks.  Some of the police are armed with fire extinguishers.

Barnett says the protesters actions reinforce an image of oppression from Chinese authorities.

"It is very important because it indicates to all Tibetans, that they stand out to be a sign of extreme desperation," he said.  "It is still a choice of last resort.  In other words, Tibetans do not see this as strategic, as a way of getting attention. They see it as a way indicating that the pressure on these monks is so great that they do not feel they have any other choice."

For Tibetan exile groups, there is a consensus that the Chinese government is to blame for the deaths.  

"Young Tibetans are courageously giving their own lives to draw international attention to one of the greatest and longest standing human rights crisis in Tibet," said Stephanie Bridgen, director of London-based Free Tibet organization.

Western criticism

Western governments have released statements that generally concur with the view that Chinese tactics are contributing to the situation.  Last week, the U.S. State Department called on Beijing to resolve the underlying grievances of China’s Tibetan population.

Beijing has strongly disputed that view and continues to describe the self-immolations as the end result of terrorism carried out by the Dalai Lama and Tibet freedom movements.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said Beijing's primary concern is to keep what she describes as normal social order in Sichuan and Tibet.  She calls the self-immolations “splittist activities” which is how the Beijing government describes Tibetan independence moves.  She also called it terrorism in disguise.

Beijing invokes terrorism

Colombia University's Barnett says this is Beijing's standard response.

"Whenever there is a protest in Tibet, that the Chinese find is of an unacceptable kind, this is a standard response.  Yet they have not yet told of any evidence of what we might consider terrorism," he said.

China’s Foreign Ministry is also not saying if it has contacted Indian authorities to pursue terrorism charges against Tibetan exile groups based in the country.

China has said that other governments commenting on the matter should refrain from doing so. Beijing officials responded to U.S. calls for respecting the rights of Tibetan and other Chinese citizens by saying that Washington should not meddle in China's internal affairs.

You May Like

Video Russia’s Syrian Escalation Tests Obama’s Crisis Response

Critics once again question whether president has been slow to act on Syrian conflict, thus creating opening for powers like Russia More

Ancient African DNA Shows Mass Migration Back Into Africa

First genetic analysis of ancient human remains in Africa suggests massive migration from north around time of Egyptian empire More

NASA: Pluto Has Blue Sky

New photos also reveal the presence of water ice More

This forum has been closed.
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugeesi
Henry Ridgwell
October 08, 2015 8:02 PM
Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Hungary Criticized for Handling of Refugees

Amnesty International has accused Hungary of breaking multiple international and European human rights laws in its handling of the refugee crisis. As Henry Ridgwell reports, thousands of migrants and refugees continue to travel through the Balkans to Hungary every day.

Video Iraqi-Kurdish Teachers Vow to Continue Protest

Sixteen people were injured when police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse teachers and other public employees who took to the streets in Iraq’s Kurdish north, demanding their salaries from the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). VOA’s Dilshad Anwar, in Sulaimaniya, caught up with protesting teachers who say they have not been paid for three months. Parke Brewer narrates his report.

Video Syrian Village Community Faces Double Displacement in Lebanon

Driven by war from their village in southwestern Syria, a group of families found shelter in Lebanon, resettling en masse in a half-built university to form one of the biggest settlements of its kind in Lebanon. Three years later, however, they now face being kicked out and dispersed in a country where finding shelter as a refugee can be especially tough. John Owens has more for VOA from the city of Saida, also known as Sidon.

Video Bat Colony: Unusual Tourist Attraction in Texas

The action hero Batman might be everyone’s favorite but real bats hardly get that kind of adoration. Put more than a million of these creatures of the night together and it only evokes images of horror. Sarah Zaman visited the largest urban bat colony in North America to see just how well bat and human get along with each other.

Video Device Shows Promise of Stopping Motion Sickness

It’s a sickening feeling — the dizziness, nausea and vomiting that comes with motion sickness. But a device now being developed could stop motion sickness by suppressing certain signals in the brain. VOA’s Deborah Block reports.

Video Making a Mint

While apples, corn, and cranberries top the list of fall produce in the US, it’s also the time to harvest gum, candy, and toothpaste—or at least the oil that makes them minty fresh. Erika Celeste reports from South Bend, Indiana on the mint harvest.

Video Activists Decry Lagos Slum Demolition

Acting on a court order, authorities in Nigeria demolished a slum last month in the commercial capital, Lagos. But human rights activists say the order was illegal, and the community was razed to make way for a government housing project. Chris Stein has more from Lagos.

Video TPP Agreed, But Faces Stiff Opposition

President Barack Obama promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership on Tuesday, one day after 12 Pacific Rim nations reached the free trade deal in Atlanta. The controversial pact that would involve about 40 percent of global trade still needs approval by lawmakers in respective countries. Zlatica Hoke reports Obama is facing strong opposition to the deal, including from members of his own party.

Video Ukranian Artist Portrays Putin in an Unusual Way

As Russian President Vladimir Putin was addressing the United Nations in New York last month, he was also being featured in an art exhibition in Washington. It’s not a flattering exhibit. It’s done by a Ukrainian artist in a unique medium. And its creator says it’s not only a work of art - it’s a political statement. VOA’s Tetiana Kharchenko has more.

Video Nano-tech Filter Cleans Dirty Water

Access to clean water is a problem for hundreds of millions of people around the world. Now, a scientist and chemical engineer in Tanzania (in East Africa) is working to change that by creating an innovative water filter that makes dirty water safe. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.

Video Demand Rising for Organic Produce in Cambodia

In Cambodia, where rice has long been the main cash crop, farmers are being encouraged to turn to vegetables to satisfy the growing demand for locally produced organic farm products. Daniel de Carteret has more from Phnom Penh.

Video Botanists Grow Furniture, with Pruning Shears

For something a bit out of the ordinary to furnish your home, why not consider wooden chairs, crafted by nature, with a little help from some British botanists with an eye for design. VOA’s Jessica Berman reports.

VOA Blogs