By MARK MCDONALD
The New York Times, 29 January 2012
HONG KONG — Why do they do it, these Buddhist monks and nuns and other young Tibetans? Why would they drink a cup of kerosene, then douse themselves and strike a match? What is behind these horrifying self-immolations, especially since Buddhism forbids suicide and the Dalai Lama himself has preached against it?
“The blame lies with the Chinese government and its very hardline, insensitive policies,’’ said Lobsang Sangay, the Dalai Lama’s political successor, who spoke with Rendezvous by telephone from Dharamsala, India. “Tibetans are really desperate now. It’s very tragic. Very sad. Very painful.”
At least 15 ethnic Tibetans — most of them current or former Buddhist clergy members — have set themselves on fire in the past year, including four this month, part of a wave of anti-government protests in Tibet and the western Chinese province of Sichuan.
Beijing has rushed police and military units to the region in recent days, and tensions are high, as my colleague Michael Wines reported from Chengdu.
“This vicious cycle of crackdowns and repressions by China seems likely to continue,” said Mr. Sangay, 43, a former legal scholar at Harvard who was elected last year to take over the Dalai Lama’s political duties in Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.
“Even when Tibetans gather for a peaceful protest for a couple of hours, the Chinese are indiscriminately shooting at them.”
Mr. Sangay, whose official title is kalon tripa, or prime minister, said that Chinese authorities pressed ethnic Tibetans to celebrate the Lunar New Year last week, a major holiday for ethnic Han Chinese but an affront to many Tibetans who prefer their own New Year, which starts on Feb. 22. He also said that Chinese officials have banned the Dalai Lama’s photograph from being displayed in Buddhist temples and monasteries, and monks and nuns have been pressured to denounce the revered spiritual leader.
Mr. Sangay said he and the Dalai Lama were aware of a growing restlessness among many ethnic Tibetans, especially young people, as Chinese security officials tighten their oversight of Tibetan religion and culture. He knows of their desire for a more active response by the government in exile.
“Obviously there’s a demand for it and a call for it,” said Mr. Sangay, the first layman to serve as kalon tripa. “Young people have always been restless and active, and they’re entitled to their views. I completely understand. I was once there myself.”
But he said he would not veer from the Dalai Lama’s policy of the “Middle Way,” the nonviolent pursuit of autonomy for Tibet within China.
The Dalai Lama does not even endorse hunger strikes, let alone violent suicide by self-immolation. “We are committed to nonviolence,” Mr. Sangay said.
But the suicides by the clergy and former clergy are a complex issue, Mr. Sangay said in an interview with the nonsectarian Religion News Service: “Although suicide is violent and prohibited in Buddhism, some Buddhists believe it depends on the motivation. If you do it out of hatred and anger, then it is negative. But if you do it for a pure cause . . .
“It’s such a complex theological issue. You can’t go either way or have a definitive answer.”
Beijing has denounced the immolations as politically motivated. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said “such splittist activity at the cost of human life is violence and terrorism in disguise.”
The International Campaign for Tibet has compiled profiles of each case. And the intelligence group Stratfor has produced a short video history of the use of self-immolation as a political tool.