Sichuan Province in China has been rocked by a string of self-immolations by Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns this year. Eleven members of the Kirti Monastery in the province have set themselves alight demanding religious freedom for Tibetans in China and the return of the Dalai Lama. Six of the demonstrators succumbed to their wounds, the latest being Palden Choesto, a nun from the monastery, who immolated herself on Thursday last week. Even exiled Tibetans have self-immolated to voice their criticism of the Chinese Communist regime. On the 5th of November, a Tibetan activist did so outside the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, and on the 10th of November, another activist self-immolated at Boudhanath, a Buddhist site on the outskirts of Kathmandu in Nepal. What remains to be seen, though, is whether actions like these will have any significant political effect.
Anti-government sentiments have been flaring recently in the Tibetan communities of China, which have faced the brunt of China’s internal police machinery. Since 2006, the Chinese Communist Party has been spending four times the resources to police the Tibetan communities of Kardze and Aba as compared to the rest of Sichuan. In 2008, Chinese authorities conducted a preemptive crackdown on Tibetan activists during the Beijing Olympics. Counter-protests were violently suppressed, as 10 monks from the Kirti Monastery were shot dead. Since the latest case of self-immolation, the military and paramilitary presence has further increased in the region. Telecommunications and Internet services have been restricted, and journalists have been denied permission to visit the Tibetan settlements.
The political rhetoric from the Chinese government’s public relations wing has been quick to discredit the Tibetan movement. The regime argues that Tibetans are free to practice their faith in China and accuses the Dalai Lama of “terrorism in disguise” for stirring the protests to overthrow Chinese rule in Tibet. Additionally, the Chinese government accused Kirti monks of long being engaged in acts of vandalism and self-immolation to disturb the social order of the region. According to an official document released in May this year, the regime stated that the monks “frequented places of entertainment, prostitution, alcohol and gambling, and spread pornographic CD-Roms” in the region.
Strict measures have been taken to quell the spirit of rebellion in Sichuan. Sources in Dharamsala, the capital of the exiled Tibetan government in India, have said that monks are being forcibly removed from Kirti Monastery, with their numbers slowly dwindling from 2,500 to a few hundred. The regime has planted around 200 government officials in the monastery to monitor its activities and adopted a strategy of “re-education” to tackle the religious motivation behind the protests. Local officials are enforcing laws mandating that all youths under 18 attend government school, and are fining families a hefty sum of 3,000 yuan if their children are monks or are studying at the monastery.
Tibetan political authorities, on the other hand, have been divided in their reactions to the string of self-immolations. On the one hand, during a recent trip to Japan, the Dalai Lama attributed the Chinese government’s “wrong, ruthless and illogical” policy towards Tibetans as the cause behind the suicides. Similarly, Stephanie Brigden, director of the London-based Free Tibet campaign, argued that Tibetans feel that self-immolation is the “only way that they can be heard” in China and across the globe. Both highlight a subtle support for self-immolation as a tactic to vilify the regime and highlight the plight of the Tibetans. On the other hand, the possible successor to the Dalai Lama, the 25-year-old Karmapa Lama, has appealed to his people to end the string of political suicides and find alternative means of challenging the Communist regime. “In Buddhist teaching life is precious,” he said. “To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives. We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet.” It is a major disadvantage for the weaker power to have this kind of ideological fracture among its leaders about so costly a tactic.
It seems the violent repression and political-cultural clampdown by the Chinese regime has cornered the Tibetan monks. The situation has driven them to use their own bodies as political weapons, a last resort to voice their long-suffered plight. On the other hand, the self-immolations have yet to provide real momentum to the Tibetan struggle. While the news of self-sacrifice may momentarily melt the hearts of the global community, it fails to deliver a pragmatic stimulus. This struggle by self-sacrifice is up against a combination of political obstacles, from the almost unassailable geopolitical position of China and the lack of a robust pro-Tibetan political movement in the mainland, to an almost indifferent international community gripped by a financial crisis. Additionally, the tactic has made it easier for the Communist regime to attack the movement’s political legitimacy by branding it as violent and irrational. It has ended up reenforcing Han chauvinism in mainland China and even justifying the government’s draconian tactics to curb the Tibetan struggle. The story of self-immolations has unfortunately failed to reach the forefront of international news, which seems to treat it as outdated in comparison to the Arab Spring.
There must be less destructive and wasteful tactics available to garner greater international support. The Chinese regime is increasingly conscious of its image abroad, and pro-Tibet organizations abroad can take advantage of this. Moreover, as the pro-democracy movement within China continues to unfold, Tibetan leaders might work to build solidarity with it to gain a wider support base for their struggle. Isn’t there a better way than suicide?
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