By Peter Hartcher,
Sydney Morning Herald
THE number of Tibetans living under Chinese rule who have staged the ultimate protest – burning themselves to death in public – is accelerating, with almost three times as many in the first six months of this year as in all of last year.
The Chinese call them “terrorists,” but who might they be trying to terrorise, the eight who died in flames by their own hand last year and the 23 who have perished so far this year?
The young Harvard-educated lawyer who recently became the first elected leader of the Tibetan government in exile, Dr Lobsang Sangay, says: “The Chinese labelling is perplexing – because in all the self-immolations, not one has hurt anyone else,” he told the Herald in an interview yesterday. “They don’t threaten or harm anyone else, so they can’t be terrorists.”
Dr Sangay, on his first visit to Australia since taking over the Dalai Lama’s political but not spiritual duties, makes the predictable point about the self-immolations as protest against Chinese repression, but also a startling concession.
“It means the situation is not bearable. It’s not just that it’s a desperate act, but also a political act. Peaceful protests, peaceful rallies are not allowed. The statements they leave behind consistently say they want freedom.
“The self-immolations are somehow an assertion of freedom – ‘you can restrain my freedom but I can choose to die as I want.’ ”
But Dr Sangay’s surprising admission comes when he volunteers this fact: The intensifying outbreak of self-immolations “coincides with my election”.
“The final round of voting for my election was March 16. Ninety per cent have coincided with my taking over the leadership.”
How to interpret this? Does it mean that Tibetans feel greater hopelessness in their cause since the withdrawal of the Dalai Lama from his political activism?
Or could it be an effort to apply greater pressure on Dr Sangay to take a harder stance against China? He made no claim and no denial but said in response to these question: “It’s too early to tell.”
At the very least, the self-immolators are not heeding the advice of their Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister in exile: “We have repeatedly asked them not to take drastic actions, including self-immolation, but they continue to do so.”
He applauded the call by the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bob Carr, for China to allow the Australian ambassador to visit Tibet to assess the situation, a call Beijing has ignored.
“It was bold and innovative of him – no one has done that formally, at least publicly. Why won’t the Chinese let the ambassador go to Tibet? They are hiding something.”
But Dr Sangay is dissatisfied Senator Carr is refusing to meet him on this visit: “Australia says it is a leading democracy and it believes in democracy and freedom of speech. That is the rhetoric, where is the action?”
He also believes Australia is in needless fear of China: “The Chinese are Confucian pragmatists. If they want to buy your coal and iron ore, they will whether you meet me or not. And if they find a cheaper source, they will buy it from there even if you do meet me.