Understanding the epidemic of Tibetan self-immolations

Nana Rolland has a piece in the Wall Street Journal which does a good job of contextualizing the political hopelessness Tibetans inside of Tibet are feeling, as evidenced by the nine self-immolations committed by young Tibetans since this spring.

Self-immolations can be seen as the tragic and desperate acts of people who do not know how to go on living. And indeed, the area around Kirti monastery, home to most of the Buddhist monks who have recently set themselves on fire, has been turned into a virtual prison. Its residents are deprived of all freedoms, including the right for the monks to be taught religion.

Rolland incorrectly states that the self-immolations have happened outside of Tibet. While they are outside of the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the TAR represents a small portion of Tibet. The Chinese government sliced other parts into majority Han Chinese provinces to diminish Tibetan political power and cultural identity.

But Rolland is right that these are political acts. Rolland writes, “it’s notable that before setting themselves ablaze, all of the nine Tibetan victims called for freedom, independence and the return to Lhasa of the Dalai Lama, regarded as the sovereign ruler of an independent Tibet.”

It’s hard to have any meaningful conception of the depths of hopelessness felt by these nine young Tibetans. Six were teenagers, three were in their twenties. There was undoubtedly a belief that the only way to achieve political change was through suicide. But even while it’s possible to write this, it’s cripplingly difficult to wrap my mind around what that actually meant for these martyrs.

To this point, the Chinese government’s response has been, as usual, to accuse the Dalai Lama of terrorism. A more sensible and serious response would be to loosen restrictions on Tibetans in Ngaba, especially those targeting monasteries and nunneries. Do I expect this to happen? No, of course not. Do I expect there to be more self-immolations? Sadly, at this point, I can’t imagine this epidemic suddenly coming to a halt.

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