Monks set themselves alight in Tibetan protest
Eleven Tibetan monks and nuns have set fire to themselves this year, in protest at Chinese rule over their homeland. They want independence – but is it worth the battle?
In Tibet’s Kirti Monastery on March 16th this year, Tibetan monk Phuntsok Jarutsang burned himself to death.
The 20-year-old’s suicide was an act of protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. In the eight months following, a further 10 monks and nuns followed suit and set themselves alight. Six have died from their injuries.
It is over 60 years since the People’s Liberation Army marched on Tibet, and reportedly forced the leadership of the Himalayan, Buddhist country to sign a treaty legitimising Chinese authority. Since then, around 6,000 monasteries have been destroyed, and an estimated 1.2 million Tibetans have been killed. Thousands more have left their homeland, fleeing from what they describe as a systematic abuse of human rights.
Chinese authorities say investment has improved life in Tibet. But for many of its people, autonomy is everything. Today, Tibetans are prohibited from displaying photographs of the Dalai Lama, flying the Tibetan flag or criticising Chinese rule. They say they are marginalised, persecuted and tortured – subjected, according to the Dalai Lama, to a process of ‘cultural genocide.’
The current rash of self-immolations is hardly the first time the Tibetan community has made a strike at freedom. In 1959, an estimated 86,000 Tibetans perished in uprisings, which forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Since then protests have continually recurred, both inside Tibet and among the extensive Tibetan diaspora.
According to some reports, though, this time things feel different. Comparisons are being drawn with Mohamed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian who sparked the Arab Spring by setting himself alight.
And it’s not just Tibetans who are sensing the rumblings of revolt. This week, China announced a new range of support measures for Tibetan monks and nuns. According to one official, ‘patriotic and law abiding monks will be praised,’ and local authorities are providing monasteries with ‘legal education’ alongside their religious lessons.
Resistance or compliance?
Tibetans, some argue, are wrong to hold autonomy so highly. Chinese occupation has arguably brought many benefits to what was once a sparsely developed country. In the face of this progress, clinging on to some desperate dream of independence is a mistake.
Tibetan freedom, others say, is about the survival of a whole people, not small improvements to infrastructure. With their future dictated by such a powerful nation, Tibetans are unable to express their deeply held identity, and decide their own future and way of life. As well as denying a whole nation this fundamental right, many argue, Chinese occupation puts the very existence of Tibet’s unique, rich and treasured culture at risk.
- Should Tibetans continue to fight for independence?
- How important is cultural identity in human life? Is it something worth protecting? Would it be a bad thing if everyone just shared the same culture?
- Every year, 2,000 Tibetans arrive in Dharamsala after fleeing Tibet. They travel across the Himalayas, often in winter, and run the serious risk of being arrested, imprisoned, or even killed by Chinese authorities. Research the journey, and imagine you are a young person making it. Write a letter to your family at home in Tibet, telling them about your experiences.
- China believes it has a historical claim to sovereignty over Tibet. Many Tibetans say they have a claim to be an independent nation. Do some further research on this question. Who do you think is right? And how much does history matter in a case like this?
Some People Say...
“The right to determine your own future is more important than material things.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- How is Tibet governed now?
- Tibet is currently incorporated into the People’s Republic of China, and so shares its Communist government.
- Who is campaigning for Tibet?
- Tibetan refugee communities exist all over the world. The Tibetan Government in Exile, a democratically elected body, exists to support this community and campaign for freedom in Tibet. It is joined by a wide range of organisations campaigning for freedom in Tibet.
- What about the Dalai Lama?
- Though still the religious leader of Tibet, he retired from politics earlier this year. Deeply loved among Tibetans, The Dalai Lama has stuck staunchly to his belief in peaceful protest, and campaigns for autonomywithin China, rather than total independence.
- People’s Liberation Army
- The military forces of the People’s Republic of China.
- Dalai Lama
- The Dalai Lama is believed to be the latest in a long line of reborn Lamas (highly regarded Tibetan teachers) descended from a Bodhisattva, or enlightened being. Historically, the Dalai Lama was head of state for the Tibetan government, although the current Dalai Lama recently stepped down, to make way for a democratically elected leader of the Tibetan Government in Exile.
- To self-immolate is to set oneself on fire. It is a tragically common method of suicide (or attempted suicide) in many Asian countries, and although it often fails to kill, it results in terrible injuries.
- A community of emigrants spread around the world, away from their native country.