Yesterday the 92nd Tibetan self-immolated in Tibet while calling for freedom since 2009, most in the last year. Think about that for a minute – 92 Tibetans have set themselves on fire while calling for an end to China’s occupation of Tibet.
In Foreign Policy, Michael Biggs has a piece on the differences between suicide bombers and self-immolators. The Chinese government has tried to depict Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists. But Biggs points out that self-immolators aren’t trying to scare people, but send a message about how deeply they hold their beliefs:
Suicide protest does not achieve these ends; its logic is communicative rather than sanguinary. To quote Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta, “Martyrdom is as strong a signal of the strength of a belief as one can get: only those who hold their beliefs very dear can contemplate making the ultimate sacrifice of dying for a cause.” Choosing a painful means of death — burning, most obviously — amplifies that signal still more. The communication, moreover, can be directed toward various audiences. Sometimes it is a disinterested and faraway public, and the self-immolator hopes to attract the public’s attention and win its sympathy. At other times the self-immolator addresses his or her own group, hoping to enhance the group’s commitment to the cause.
Biggs sees this as a phenomenon which will continue, even in the face of more repression in Tibet:
So far, the recent wave of Tibetan immolations has not yielded any tangible political success. Repression has only increased in the Tibetan areas of China, and expressions of sympathy from the majority Han population within China are rare. Western public opinion, which already favored the Tibetan cause, has no means of exercising leverage over China. But it is too soon to assess the consequences of these immolations. Gauging their effect on Tibetans within China is effectively impossible given the degree of repression.
What we can predict is that suicide protest will continue. Its communicative logic is no less potent than the suicide attack’s sanguinary logic — and it is more readily carried out. A suicide bombing requires organization, coordination, and technical skills to prepare explosives. In conflict zones like Afghanistan, the attacker also needs assistance to reach what are often fortified targets. Suicide protest does not require organization. There is no defense against the practice, short of the total suppression of information. Where information about suicide protest can be suppressed completely, there is hardly any reason to perform it. In today’s world, the totalitarian control formerly exercised by the Soviet Union or Maoist China is no longer feasible, at least for a country participating in the global economy. For evidence, look no further than China’s inability to prevent us from reading about — and in some cases even watching — the immolations in Tibet.
Biggs is likely correct, though it’s hard to imagine this tragic epidemic is continued to be met by functional silence by the world’s governments. As long as China’s continued response is one of repression, Tibetans will continue to struggle to throw of the yolk of their occupation. More Tibetans will likely see self-immolation as their only option for impactful political organizing. It’s hard to comprehend the depths of despair felt by Tibetans inside of Tibet, but at the same time, these actions tell you how deep it must be, even if it is a depth beyond comprehension.