Self-Immolation for Tibet: Why the Dalai Lama’s Silence is Costing Lives

Suffering under Chinese oppression, Tibet is one of the least free regions of the world. It is, in fact, the second to least free–behind only Syria–in terms of civil liberties and political rights, according to the watchdog organization Freedom House. Since the takeover of Tibet in 1959 by the People’s Republic of China and the subsequent exile of the Dalai Lama to India, China has instituted extreme policies for regional assimilation. Severe religious restrictions and forced denunciations of the Dalai Lama, bans on the formal study of the Tibetan language, forced resettlement of traditionally grassland nomads–all these culminated in a series of Tibetan protests and riots in 2008. But one act of protest in particular shocked the world: In Ngawa City on February 27, 2009, a young Tibetan monk named Tapey self-immolated; that is, he lit himself on fire, and set the precedent for an extreme form of protest.

More than 150 Tibetans have self-immolated since Tapey. Protesting the Chinese treatment of Tibet, most of the self-immolators have been Buddhist monks and nuns, though some have been laypeople. More than 120 of them have died in the act, and 26 of them have been 18 years old or younger. And the phenomenon continues: The most recent death was of a Tibetan man, Konpe, on December 23, 2017.  In the video of Konpe’s immolation, a woman is heard yelling, “Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso [the Dalai Lama], grace us with your compassionate gaze.” This excerpt is telling: Many of the protesters have set themselves ablaze in the name of the Dalai Lama, who, as the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is central to the Tibetan struggle and holds tremendous and unrivaled influence over Tibetans. Surprisingly, however, this globally renowned advocate of nonviolence–a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize–has refused to speak out against the practice of brutal suicide as a form of protest, despite the power he has to prevent it. He wishes to stay out of the issue, but his silence has been and will continue to be fatal to many. The Dalai Lama ought to condemn self-immolation in order to save lives in the future.

The Dalai Lama has had a difficult relationship with these cases of self-immolation ever since the first one by Tapey. As the figurehead of the Tibetan struggle, he has advocated for peaceful protest and deserves credit for dissuading the protesters from violence in most instances. But to all those who over the years have asked for his definitive stance on the problem of self-immolation, he has responded in more or less the same way, though with slight variation. His response is typified in a 2017 interview with John Oliver: while he “expresses [his] sorrow,” he still cannot call self-immolations wrong because then “their family… feels very sad [that] one of their family members did something against the Dalai Lama’s wish.” He goes on to say that, on the other hand, he cannot support any kind of killing, since “from a Buddhist viewpoint, it’s a self-killing–not good,” thereby questioning the ethicality of self-immolation. The second part of his answer is actually a departure from a comment he made in 2013; he had said that “self-burning itself is a practice of nonviolence,” since protesters, though capable of more violent forms of protest such as suicide bombing, “only sacrifice their own life.” In the same year, he also publicly questioned the efficacy of the form of protest.

Tibetan protesters have turned to self-immolation out of despair, but also as a means of showcasing their despair to the world. As China harshly cracks down on dissent and imposes pervasive surveillance that stifles organized and collective resistance, the protesters have increasingly resorted to the practice of self-immolation. They believe it to be effective, first, because it is difficult for authorities to prevent; second, because its shock value attracts global attention; and finally, because it demonstrates a courage that may inspire others. The practice, moreover, has a famous precedent in the Vietnam War when, in 1963, Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc burned himself in protest of the Diem regime’s pro-Catholic and anti-Buddhist policies. But, as Kevin Carrico points out in a cultural and historical analysis of the practice in Tibet, there is no tradition of self-immolation in Tibetan Buddhism. In his view, an implication of religion is simplistic, and the best way of understanding self-immolation is as “less Tibetan Buddhist than simply Tibetan,” resulting from the host of “social, cultural, political, and ethnic grievances.”

Even so, to understand the motivations for self-immolation, one cannot overlook the role that Tibetan Buddhism plays, of which nonviolence is a central tenet. The Dalai Lama’s apparent change on the question of Buddhist doctrine–namely, whether Buddhism justifies self-immolation–echoes the discrepant responses of Buddhist authorities to the issue. Tsering Woeser, Tibetan activist and author of Tibet on Fire, asserts that, rather than perpetrators of suicide or of killing, the self-immolators are bodhisattvas, enlightened individuals who sacrifice on others’ behalves. She cites a “high ranking monk,” who sees these acts as having the purpose of protecting the Dharma. A more nuanced but also favorable view of self-immolation is that of Tenzin Kun-khyab of the Central Tibetan Administration. He places importance on the acts’ underlying motivation, that is, on whether one burns himself for altruistic or for selfish and hateful purposes; and he cites the story told in Jataka Tales of the Buddha’s offering his own body to feed a tigress. On the other end of the spectrum, as Chung Tsering describes in his 2012 survey of articles by members of the Tibetan exile community, some Tibetan Buddhists consider self-immolation an act of violence because it violates the Vinaya, the Buddhist moral code, which forbids suicide, and–a more outlandish reason–because it “brings harm upon numerous micro-living beings surviving on one’s body.” The Dalai Lama does not extensively elaborate on his view, but as of 2017 he seems to be leaning to the latter camp (although he has never mentioned the ethics of human microbiota).

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Surprisingly, however, this globally renowned advocate of nonviolence–a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize–has refused to speak against the practice of brutal suicide as a form of protest, despite the power he has to prevent it. He wishes to stay out of the issue, but his silence has been and will continue to be fatal to many.

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Whatever his religious views, the fact is that if the Dalai Lama does not condemn self-immolation, more people will die. His concern for the families of the protesters comes from the right place; indeed, they would be sad to hear that the Dalai Lama disapproves of the suicide of their relatives. Such sadness, however, does not compare to the potential deaths of Tibetan self-immolators to come. Each year since 2011, there have been at least three, at most 86, Tibetan self-immolators. The phenomenon does not look to be stopping on its own, and therefore needs the Dalai Lama’s condemnation.

The huge and ever-growing death toll of those who have burned themselves in his name should be enough to spur the Dalai Lama to action; but the inefficacy of these protests makes them all the more depressing. He himself, as mentioned above, has questioned their efficacy, even though he has not taken the next step of discouraging them. The Chinese government has effectively propagandized the protests: it has branded the self-immolators as terrorists who mindlessly follow the “feudal slave owner” the Dalai Lama. In the nine years since the first self-immolation by Tapey, the Tibetan people have seen virtually no substantive improvement of their condition. Worse, the self-immolations actually may be backfiring: after the initial waves of these protests, China tightened security across Tibet, and now, in order to deter protesters, Chinese authorities go to such lengths as to punish the self-immolators’ families and even their entire villages.

On the surface, the self-immolations have achieved at least one of their goals, which is that they alerted the world’s attention to the struggle of Tibet. In 2012, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, moved by the “desperate” forms of protests to which Tibet had resorted, called on China to address the allegations of human rights violations. She underscored the need for the Chinese government to permit the freedom of expression and to allow for peaceful demonstrations. The oppression of Tibet is a dire and horrific crisis, which China has an ethical imperative to alleviate. In the meantime, however, an imperative is also on the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhist authorities, who have done a bad job of curbing the politically and religiously motivated suicides in their name. Too many have died; after more than 150 self-immolations, another one will not anymore change the world’s perspective on the oppression of Tibet. In the same statement, Pillay also said, “I recognize Tibetans’ intense sense of frustration and despair which has led them to resort to such extreme means, but there are other ways to make those feelings clear.” Now the Dalai Lama must–definitively and without reservation–urge his followers to employ those other ways.

About the Author

James Flynn '20 is the former Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. James can be reached at james_flynn1@brown.edu

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