Tibetan Self Immolations: Why Isn’t the World Listening?


March 31, 2012 7:48 am

(By Vijay Kranti | IANS India)

Until he became a burning sensation in the international media, the story of Jamphel Yeshi, 27, was no different from the few million Tibetans who live today in what Chinese leaders call a Socialist Haven or China’s Tibet. He was one of those 10,000 odd young Tibetans who could smuggle themselves out of Tibet in recent years in search of better education or to find some breathing space for their suffocated souls. Like most of his fellow young compatriots in occupied Tibet, Jamphel too had never seen the Dalai Lama nor lived under what China brands the ‘feudal’ rule of the ‘Dalai clique’ that was dethroned by Mao’s army 36 years before Jamphel was born.

Like his father, he too was educated and brought up on a daily overdose of Communist indoctrination which hopes to convert Tibetan and children of other 55 ‘national minorities’ of China into ‘patriotic’ citizens of the ‘great motherland’. He too was told by his class teacher in school that the Dalai Lama was a ‘wolf in the robes of a monk’ and hence deserved their hatred for being a ‘splitist’ and the ‘worst enemy’ of their Chinese motherland. However, when he entered his teens and started becoming aware of his ethnic identity, he too began feeling suffocated and lost amidst a new flood of Han settlers (the majority community in China) in his traditionally Khampa Tibetan town of Tawu which was assimilated into neighbouring Sichuan province after Tibet lost its freedom.

Jamphel quietly crossed over to India in 2007 and was going through a computer course in Delhi on the day he decided to take the extreme step of immolating himself during an anti-China, anti-Hu Jintao Tibetan rally near the Indian parliament. Hu is especially despised by Tibetan masses as the ‘Butcher of Lhasa’. As the governor of Tibet, Hu used army tanks and armoured vehicles to effectively crush the Tibetan uprising in Lhasa in 1989. Three months later, it was the same ‘Lhasa Model’ that was used by his seniors in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to crush the Chinese youth’s uprising against the Communist system. Jamphel was the 32nd in a chain of self immolations inside and outside Tibet in past one year. On Wednesday, he became the 18th among the confirmed Tibetan deaths. The fate of the other 13 is known only to Chinese authorities. Following Jamphel’s death, the government in New Delhi has, for obvious reasons, decided to further tighten measures to ensure a comfortable stay for Hu Jintao.

Hu will soon return to China and the stink raised by the immolation is most likely to melt away in the flood of other important news. But Jamphel’s moving inferno leaves behind some issues which may haunt a world community that expresses faith in democracy and civilised conduct.
Just a few issues to ponder over: A long chain of self immolations by Tibetan youths, a majority of them monks and nuns, negates the oft repeated Chinese claims that everything is fine inside Tibet. Or that Tibetans love Chinese rule and despise the ‘feudal’ Dalai Lama. One burning and dying immolator after another shouting for ‘rangzen’ (Tibetan freedom) and return of Dalai Lama to Tibet has exposed another face of Tibetan reality to the millions of YouTube watchers across the world as opposed to what Chinese government claims.

At least 32 cases of self immolation by Tibetan youths and not a single case of stabbing, shooting, bombing or hostage taking against their colonial masters underlines the Tibetan people’s deep faith in their leader Dalai Lama and his commitment to ‘ahimsa’ or Gandhian non-violence. It also makes a laughing stock of Chinese leadership when they desperately try to paint Dalai Lama as Hitler and a Nazi collaborator of the US. It establishes beyond doubt that resistance inside Tibet is alive and widespread even 61 years after the Chinese takeover and that the Dalai Lama is, perhaps, more popular that he was on the escape day to exile in 1959. It also proves that the Communist indoctrination of six decades has failed to cool down the national aspirations of Tibetan masses. And that Tibetan masses today feel pushed to desperation. Each of the 32 immolations occurred in the erstwhile Tibetan provinces of Kham and Amdo, now parts of Sichuan, Yunnan, Quinghai and Ganzu – this challenges Chinese assertion that these areas are not Tibet or that only Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) is the ‘Real Tibet’.

In most events of these self immolations, the manner in which the Chinese PSB police and agents kicked the man on flames or the local Han bystanders pelted stones over the dying young Tibetan only reflects the deep divide between the Tibetan and the Chinese settlers in Tibetan areas. In a world where a single self immolation by a Tunisian vegetable vendor can invoke world support and revolution in 15 countries, the absence of any reaction or measure on the part of the UN and governments towards an unending chain of immolations compel sceptics to think the real triggers of world sympathy lie somewhere else rather than in commitment to human and democratic values. They might start wondering loudly if the world community has not arrived a stage where world opinion is more influenced by economic power of a single government than the collective moral power of the world at large.

And above all, Jamphel Yeshi has left the world community with a question: have we arrived at a stage where thousands of struggling communities across the world might lose faith in the efficacy of democratic and non-violent expression as a valid tool of conflict resolution?

(Vijay Kranti is a senior journalist and a Tibetologist. He can be contacted at v.kranti@gmail.com)