Two Tibetans reportedly died after setting themselves on fire on the very same day — November 15 — that China’s Communist Party revealed its new generation of leaders. A dozen Tibetans self-immolated in the period leading up to the recent 18th Communist Party Congress in Beijing in which power was transferred to Xi Jinping and six other members of the Politburo Standing Committee.
Since March of 2011, more than 60 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, in an unstinting effort to alert the world about their fight to end Chinese rule of Tibet.
Tibetans accuse China of religious repression and of causing their culture to die out, as increasing numbers of China’s majority Han population move into Tibetan areas. China has countered that residents of Chinese-controlled Tibetan regions enjoy religious freedom and have benefited from better living standards thanks to its economic investments.
Tibetans are also calling for the return of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader who has been exiled since 1959. China has accused the Dalai Lama of fomenting the self-immolations to attract attention to the cause of Tibetan separatism.
Are Self-Immolations Spreading Beyond Tibet?
23-year-old Dangzin Dolma and 18-year-old Kabum Gyal reportedly both self-immolated last Thursday in two separate incidents in different locations in the town of Tongren in China’s northwest Qinghai province, says the London-based Free Tibet organization. A heavy police presence had been noted in the area for several weeks.
The Telegraph reports that, also on November 15, a British man set himself on fire in the Nalanda monastery in southwestern France. Tonden, who was born David Alain in the U.K., had been in training at the monastery for the past five years and is the first Western Tibetan Buddhist monk to self-immolate. The monks and police are not sure if Tonden sought to make a political statement or set himself on fire because he was “psychologically fragile.” French authorities said that he had struggled “during his training … [with] coming to terms with all the obligations and vows that his position demands.” The Buddhist monks must follow precepts that “urge against harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication.”
The Nasanda monastery’s director, the venerable Losang Tendar, said that Tonden had offered no sign that he would take his own life and did not leave a note. “We have of course followed the events in Tibet, but until now it was simply inconceivable that it would happen here in the West,” he said to the Telegraph.
Tibetans living in exile in India have also been staging protests to demand freedom from China. Advocates tell the Telegraph that mounting frustration with Chinese rule among Buddhists could spill over into the West. Kate Saunders of the International Campaign for Tibet says that “I actually befriended someone on Facebook recently who was threatening to self-immolate to draw international attention to what is going on.”
On November 16, the day after the official changeover of power in Beijing, Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay (the political leader for Tibetan exiles) called for increased international support in Tibet’s struggle to gain freedom from China. As he said to a meeting in Dhamsala, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama, to 40 supporting organizations:
“Tibet is a litmus test for China and the world. By supporting Tibet, the international community will clearly show what they stand for.”
“By not supporting us in our non-violent struggle, the world will send a wrong message to all oppressed people of the world.”
Last summer, when my husband (a history and religion professor in New York) mentioned to a student from China that the Dalai Lama is indeed alive, the young man laughed nervously. Clearly he had been told something very different about the real history of his country and of Tibet.
As speculation continues about what reforms China’s new leaders may or may not make, we need to continue to support Tibet’s fight for freedom and to preserve its religion and unique culture.
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