By Vishal Arora, Asia Times Online

NEW DELHI – A series of 15 self-immolations by Tibetan monks since last March has thrown a harsh spotlight on China’s Tibet policy. While Beijing insists the acts are “separatist propaganda” incited by exiles, international opinion is not swaying in its favor.

Observers have few options in deciding who is right. China doesn’t allow journalists or investigators into sensitive Tibetan areas, and often the sole source of information on the incidents are Tibetan media and organizations based in India and the West.

The office of Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government in exile based in the north Indian town of Dharamsala, is one such source.

Almost all the Tibetans who self-immolated called for “restoration of freedom in Tibet and return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama”, Sangay told Asia Times Online from a representative office of the Dalai Lama in New Delhi.

China has neither denied reports of self-immolations nor disputed that the monks were calling for freedom and the return of their spiritual leader. The crux of Beijing’s argument is that human-rights conditions in Tibet do not elicit self-immolations, while alleging that the suicides were incited by exiles hoping to make a case for Tibetan freedom.

However, Sangay, a former scholar from Harvard Law School, claims the level of repression is peaking. Since the 2008 Tibetan unrest, China has “adopted hardline policies leading to crackdowns, an undeclared martial law and the presence of troops everywhere” he says, pushing the monastic community to “the brink of desperation”.

Members of the Communist Party are dictating the functioning of almost all monasteries in Tibet, added Sangay.

“When someone gives a vow to give up worldly life and joins a monastery, that’s their world, their family,” he said. “And when they are expelled because they refuse to denounce His Holiness [the Dalai Lama] or to stamp on his photograph, then hopelessness sinks in.”

Kirti Monastery in Sichuan, where a monk set off the ongoing wave of self-immolations, had more than 2,000 monks, but the number has gone down to “a few hundred [due to expulsions]”, alleged Sangay, who was sworn in as the Dalai Lama’s political successor in August last year.

In a letter published in The Guardian, Dai Qingli, an official from the Chinese Embassy in London, suggests that the immolations are part of “a separatist agenda under religious cover”, pointing out that “pro-independence Tibetans outside China were quick to publicize the self-immolations, sometimes within a few minutes of their occurrence”.

However, Sangay cites the example of an exiled monk who attempted self-immolation in Nepal. The monk had planned it for September, but a friend who came to know about it prevented him from burning himself.

He made another attempt in November, but survived. “It shows that self-immolators do it alone … Anyone who comes to know about it will not let it happen. We do not even have the pictures of the burnt bodies. If it was for international support or publicity, then they would do something to get the attention of journalists.”

The act is down to “desperation and is a sacrifice for a cause”, Sangay insists.

Sangay agrees that monks remain at the forefront of the Tibetan movement. But adds that they believe in non-violence and democracy.

“We advocate for the Middle Way policy, which seeks genuine autonomy within China even though Tibet was an independent nation and in international law one could argue for a separate nation.”

The Dalai Lama, who is blamed by Beijing for the self-immolations, has condemned the incidents while claiming repression in Tibetan areas.

At Kalachakra, a 10-day teaching session the spiritual leader held at Bodh Gaya in east Indian state of Bihar in early January, 200,000 people came, Sangay said. “Including spies from China,” he added, and laughed.

Beijing often boasts about social and economic development in Tibet. It has earmarked a budget of over $46.89 billion for 226 projects in the region to speed up development. However, Sangay insists this is not what Tibetans really want.

There has been a generation change since the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans fled to India following a failed uprising in 1959, he said.

“Almost 99% of this generation has never met the Dalai Lama. Still there is a strong sense of the Tibetan spirit. All the self-immolators, the eldest one is in his 40s, grew up under the Chinese system, education, politics, history, and [yet] they are dying. No matter what kind of education you provide and no matter what propaganda you subject them to, they are saying, it’s better to die than live under those circumstances.”

These are serious allegations against China, and the international community mostly believing the Tibetans. Due to Beijing’s unwillingness to allow journalists to investigate, its claims naturally sound like defensive rhetoric.

“These actions clearly represent … enormous anger, enormous frustration with regard to the severe restrictions on human rights, including religious freedom, inside China,” said US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland in January. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also taken note of restrictions on basic freedoms and authorities’ interference in monasteries across the Tibetan plateau.

Beijing has shrugged off Western support of the Tibetan movement as a conspiracy. But, if sympathy among the Chinese population grows due to as the media highlights the immolations, Beijing could face problems.

Many Chinese may side with their government out of nationalism, but others will not. After all, more than 100 million people in China follow Buddhism.

While Beijing could show more transparency in its Tibet policy to avert international criticism, Tibetans-in-exile also need to discourage self-immolations more strongly. Though a drastic step, these acts cannot result in more than statements of support by Western nations.

–Vishal Arora is a New Delhi-based journalist. He researches and writes on politics, culture, religion, foreign affairs and human rights, primarily but not exclusively in South and Southeast Asia. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, USA Today, World Politics Review, Foreign Policy in Focus, the Religion News Service, and many other outlets.

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