The depth of Tibetan despair

Tom Lasseter of McClatchy:

“China in our eyes is not fair or peaceful,” said the monk, a man in his early 40s who, like every ethnic Tibetan interviewed for this story, did so on the condition that he not be named and that certain details be withheld, for fear of getting dragged off by police. “We are suffering a lot in our hearts, and when we can no longer bear it we burn ourselves to death.”

The father first wanted it made clear that he would not “take legal responsibility” for his words, and then said, “The Chinese government issues messages that these things are happening because of foreign plots, but of course the people lighting themselves on fire are local people …”

The father paused and looked at the small stove in front of him, which was heating the room with burning stacks of yak dung.

The younger brother, in his early 20s and with plans to move to a bigger city, finished the sentence with an assertion that no one contradicted.

“The people lighting themselves on fire do it because they are suffering … or because one of their family members has been killed by the government and they are now filled with hatred,” he said. “They are doing these things because they want to express their pain and their hardship.”

The McClatchy article is a massive indictment of the Chinese government’s occupation of Tibet, as if the 23 self-immolations in the last year weren’t indictment enough.

Jamyang Norbu on Tibetan self-immolations

Renowned exiled Tibetan author and poet Jamyang Norbu has one of the most thoughtful analysis of 2011’s epidemic of self-immolations by young Tibetan monks and nuns inside of Tibet – you can read it on his blog Shadow Tibet. His analysis looks at historic instances of self-immolation as a political act by practitioners of Buddhism throughout Asia, as well as the historical Buddha’s confrontational, physical pursuit of enlightenment (in contrast to more passive styles of Buddhism embraced by the West in the 20th century).

Jamyang-la writes:

The courageous action of the thirteen self-immolators in Tibet must be seen in this specific doctrinal light. I emphatically disagree with the opinion some people are circulating that the monks and nuns burnt themselves in despair because they were not allowed to practice their religion. If that were the main concern of these monks and nuns then the logical course of action for them to take would have been to escape to India, as many others had done so before. Kirti monastery, where most of the young self-immolators had studied, even has a large branch at Dharamshala where they would have been welcome.

Hence we must see the self-immolations in Tibet as action taken for the welfare of others, for the freedom of the Tibetan people and the independence of Tibet (as some of the self-immolators expressly stated). Even the call by most of the self-immolators for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet must be interpreted as a call for the restoration of an independent Tibet, as the Dalai Lama is regarded as the legitimate sovereign ruler of independent Tibet, and should not merely be interpreted as a plea for the return of a personal spiritual leader, as those attempting to de-politicize the events have been claiming.

The deed of the thirteen self-immolators is not only Buddhist in an unquestionably absolute sense, but furthermore comes from within a heroic and action-oriented tradition of Buddhism. Some scholars have viewed this approach as truer to the original teachings of the historical Buddha, in contrast to the quietist, passive, even escapist perception of Buddhism which has gained more widespread acceptance, especially in the West.

This is a really important analysis – the whole thing is worth reading, as it undercuts many misconceptions of not only Tibetan Buddhism, but Buddhism on whole.

More importantly, Norbu’s piece strikes against paternalistic responses to these brave, heart-breaking political acts of self-sacrifice. People are killing themselves for freedom because they do not see any other way to affect change under China’s military occupation of Tibet. Those who express confusion about what these self-immolations are about are being just as deliberately obtuse as those who spent months wondering what Occupy Wall Street protesters were upset about. It’s hard not to take a low opinion of anyone who tries to spin these self-immolations into validations of their desire to depoliticize Tibet or make China’s occupation a non-confrontable aspect in a negotiation about cultural preservation.

Lastly, I recommend you read through the comments section on Jamyang Norbu’s post, which seem to be entirely by Tibetans in exile. The post surfaces a lot of the tensions which should be surfaced by a serious discussion of the rash of self-immolations happening inside of Tibet. Jamyang-la’s unflinching look at what is happening casts not only a negative light on China, but on leading officials of the Tibetan Government in Exile, the International Campaign for Tibet and even the Dalai Lama. These are very hard things for many people to confront. But this internal debate must happen if there is ever going to be a cure to the disease which has prompted these self-immolations. Freedom will not come for Tibet without serious reflection of what is happening and why it is happening. Jamyang Norbu is boldly engaging in this discussion and I encourage others to join him.

Sell Taiwan for Debt Forgiveness?

Paul Kane must have been wearing a pair of bad idea jeans when he penned his op-ed in the New York Times calling for the US to trade Taiwan to China for $1.14 trillion in debt forgiveness by the Chinese government. Kane thinks that the US’s commitment to defend Taiwan in the event of an attack by China is a vestige of the Cold War that should be left behind, in exchange for the Chinese government forgiving all the US debt they currently hold. Kane is worried that debt is a drag on our economy, though he just asserts this without evidence beyond a quote from retired Admiral Mike McMullen asserting the same.

Debt hawkishness is bad enough. It’s infected elite discourse and genuinely prevented actual steps that would create jobs and right the economy from being enacted. But debt hawkishness paired with the idea of selling out an ally democracy? This is just a horrible idea and one that I hope finds no traction in political discourse.

Tibet is burning for freedom

Time Magazine’s Hannah Beech has a first hand account from inside Tibet of the epidemic of self-immolations and other bold acts by Tibetans calling for freedom and a return of the Dalai Lama. It’s rare to get this sort of reporting from Tibet and the piece is illuminating for both the recent phenomenon of Tibetan’s lighting themselves on fire to protest China’s military occupation of Tibet and the larger symptoms of China’s colonization that disempower Tibetans and seek to crush Tibetan language and culture.

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.

Tibetan monk self-immolates calling for freedom

A Tibetan monk in Tawu, Kardze, Tibet self-immolated yesterday while calling for Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama’s return. The monk’s name was Tsewang Norbu.

Since Tsewang Norbu’s death, there has been a massive influx of police and military forces into the town in Kardze where Norbu’s monastery is and surrounded it. Over 10,000 Tibetans have come to the monastery and are also surrounding it.

This is really a tinder box and the Chinese government’s reflexive show of force is not likely to reduce the chances of further conflict or, for that matter, more Tibetans reaching the breaking point and seeing self-immolation as the logical choice of protesting the brutal Chinese occupation.

Anti-eviction violence in China

Financial Times reports on a disturbing trend in China: homeowners being evicted by the Chinese government to make way for development are fighting back with violent tactics. In China, the transfer of wealth from working class people to elites is abetted by the government in an even more dramatic way than here in the US, but the offense is the same. The drama of the FT article is only different by a matter of degrees from what is going on in the US. Here the theft of homes is done through a lack of enforcement of real estate and securitization laws, a lack of due process for home owners and on some occasions, actual physical theft by banks. Compared with the straight theft by developers, backed by government thugs, what happens in China is really similar. The surprising (and fortunate) thing is that while Chinese homeowners may now be turning to violent acts of protest, US homeowners have not. Sure, there’s the memorable scene in “Capitalism: A Love Story” where a recently evicted farmer talks about him now understanding how someone could get to a point where they take a gun and shoot up a place, but that’s just talk.

The economic inequality in China is similar to economic inequality in the US. The actions of wealthy elites and the government against working class people and homeowners is similar. The levels of protests by working class people remain dramatically higher in China than in the US. While violence has no place in protest, there needs to be (and I think there will be in the future) greater public outcry against policies which destroy middle class wealth and give it to people and banks who are already wealthy beyond their wildest dreams.

Tendor on Phuntsog’s Self-Immolation

My colleague Tenzin Dorjee, Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, has a great quote in the New York Times explaining the meaning of the self-immolation by a young Tibetan monk named Phuntsog in Ngaba, Tibet:

“China’s violent rule in Tibet has escalated since 2008 to a point where Tibetans feel compelled to take desperate action,” Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of ’Students for a Free Tibet, based in New York, said in a statement. “Phuntsog Jarutsang’s self-immolation is a window into the deep suffering and frustrations that Tibetans everywhere are feeling, and is an urgent cry for help that the global community cannot ignore.”

Self-Immolation & Protests in Ngaba, Tibet

Early Kate Saunders of International Campaign for Tibet tweeted:

@katesictibet A young Tibetan monk set himself on fire at Kirti in Tibet; protests that followed were violently suppressed, news just emerging

Now Phayul is reporting the story with more details:

A Tibetan monk of Kirti monastery in Amdo Ngaba is reportedly dead after he set himself ablaze at a market near his monastery, according to a reliable source with contacts in the region.

The source said that Phuntsok, 21, of Kirti monastery carried out protest at the busy market of Ngaba around 4PM (Beijing Time) before immolating himself. It is not yet known what slogans he chanted during the brief protest that was, according to the source, aimed to mark the 3rd anniversary of bloody crackdown on Tibetan protesters in Ngaba on March 16, 2008.

Chinese police immediately arrived at the scene, doused the fire, and beat Phuntsok, said the source. As the police were trying to take him away in a waiting police van scores of Tibetans rushed to the scene and protected Phuntsok. The crowd later grew in numbers, and took Phuntsok to his monastery making sure the Chinese police did not take him away. According to unconfirmed information from Ngaba, Phuntsok has succumbed to his burns, and that his body is lying in a chapel of the monastery.

Hundreds of angry Tibetans immediately gathered at the main market and carried out protests against the Chinese government. They walked almost a mile from the main market chanting anti-government slogans before being dispersed by Chinese security forces. Troops have been brought in from neighboring areas to quell the protests. Hundreds of Tibetans were arrested, and several others sustained injuries from electric baton and iron rods used by Chinese soldiers on the protesters.

Reuters has more.

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