The Fire Next Time: Tibetan Protests Spread

[Jamphel Yeshi, the activist who set himself alight in Delhi this past Monday, died this morning (3/28) of his injuries—on the same day that yet another protester, a 20-year-old monk, self-immolated in eastern Tibet. India has responded to the unrest by placing a number of Tibetan refugees under what they term “house arrest.” Below, Megan Sweas reports from India on the latest wave of protests. –Eds.]

DELHI—Shibayan Raha had worried that this would happen. At a protest against the upcoming visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao, a 27-year-old Tibetan exile lit himself on fire and ran past the podium before police and other activists could douse the flames. 

As an Indian who has worked for Students for a Free Tibet, Raha has seen young refugees who were more interested in hip-hop culture than Tibetan culture reconnect with their roots in recent years. Since March 2011, 29 people inside Tibet have protested China’s increased repression by lighting themselves on fire. Their photos hang on posters in the center of the city’s Tibetan refugee settlement, personalizing the struggle for Tibet’s freedom. “If I’m not doing anything, I shouldn’t call myself a Tibetan,” the young people told Raha.

While uprisings in Tibet in the late 1980s inspired international solidarity movements among young Westerners, recent protests inside Tibet have galvanized a new generation of activists within the refugee community [See here for RD’s previous coverage]. The young refugees in India inspire their partners around the world in their persistence, but they also need a positive outlet for their frustration, activists say.

“One thing we have been encouraging very strongly in the global movement is the importance of planning, the importance of strategy, the importance of living, dedicating our lives to activism,” says Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, who regularly travels to India for nonviolence trainings. In India, “their action is a little bit more spontaneous.”

A New Revolution

The March 10 National Uprising Day protest in Delhi was bigger than ever this year. Tempa Tsering, the official representative of the Dalai Lama, says more than 1,000 gathered in front of the United Nations’ office to mark the anniversary of the 1959 rebellion in Tibet against China’s People’s Liberation Army.

“The emotions are much stronger—the sense of concern, the sense of anxiety, the urgency,” Tsering says. “You have your fellow beings torturing themselves… So when this is happening in Tibet, of course people here feel very intense and strongly. But what we can do is very limited.”

Tenzin Tsomo, 21, regularly participates in protests, but recognizes their limits. “I believe if I go out for protest in front of China’s embassy, it will not give us freedom. Sometimes a lot of people are sarcastic about that,” she says.

Still, protests keep the issue in the news and send a message of solidarity to Tibetans in China, while the self-immolations in Tibet give her hope. “It’s the beginning of a new revolution,” Tsomo says.

“Sometimes We Forget”

Tsomo and Tenzin Chemi (many young men and women are named Tenzin after the Dalai Lama) ate Tibetan cold noodles in Yak Café at the entrance of Majnu Ka Tilla, Delhi’s Tibetan refugee settlement. The young women, students at Delhi University, came to the Tibetan settlement to buy chuba, traditional attire.

They wore skinny jeans and hipster glasses, but the next day, they would don chuba and speak proper Tibetan rather than the slangy mixture of English, Hindi, and Tibetan that they usually use.

The two Tenzins change their dress and speech once a week for Lhakar, a grassroots movement to preserve Tibetan culture started in the wake of the 2008 uprising. 

“We have to remember that we are Tibetan refugees,” Tsomo says. “Sometimes we don’t feel the pain. We are living here, enjoying our lives, going to college and everything, so sometimes we forget.”

Jamphel Yeshi, the Tibetan who set himself on fire in Delhi, came to India in 2006 from Tawu, Tibet, where a monk and nun self-immolated last year, says Tenzin Jigdal, program director for Students for a Free Tibet—India.

Refugees born in Tibet cannot easily forget China’s repression, says Wangdue, 33, a “mountain boy” from Tibet with just one name. He hung out at his open-air clothing shop along the narrow path of Majnu Ka Tilla with Norbu Tsetam, 25, who was born in India. “He hears about Tibet, but he cannot see Tibet,” Wangdue says of his friend.

“Sometimes I feel I’m a very unlucky guy… born as a refugee,” Tsetam says.

Still, young refugees connect online with friends and family in Tibet, serving as “important points of contact for sharing and disseminating information and for mobilizing the international community,” says Stephanie Bridgen, director of Free Tibet. “What I think is really exciting at the moment is that lots of young Tibetans are discussing and debating different aspects of how we should respond to the situation in Tibet.”

Tsetam, for instance, feels torn between supporting complete independence for Tibet and his spiritual leader’s call for autonomy within China.

Many young Tibetans break from the Dalai Lama over his effort to compromise with China. Strategically, it’s better to ask for it all, Raha says, but as a Buddhist convert about to make his first 10-day meditation retreat, he also sees independence as “the best way to preserve the true culture.”

The extreme stance, however, does not call for extreme actions, Raha says. When the self-immolations in Tibet started last year, he sent an email to the youth he has worked with, asking them not to bring self-immolation to the Diaspora.

“I Have to Live”

Raha’s concern that self-immolation might spread to India is unfounded, Tenzin Tsewang told me a week before Yeshi set himself on fire in Delhi. He and his friends belong to the Tibetan Youth Congress, one of the strongest voices for independence within the refugee community, but they also were volunteering at a local Tibetan cultural festival.

Sitting at the information desk, Tsewang looked gangster-tough with a stud in his ear and graffiti-decorated baseball cap askew on top of his head. The self-immolations cause him pain, he said. “We can’t show our expression by face, but we are crying inside. We can’t do anything to help them.” One friend was so frustrated that he hit himself in the head with a rock out in front of the UN embassy recently, Tsewang said.

But self-immolating in India would be counterproductive. “In exile, we have the right to freedom of speech,” he said. “I have to live and I have to struggle for our nation.”

msweas@gmail.com'

Megan Sweas is an Annenberg Fellow studying the intersection of religion and politics in USCs Specialized Journalism program. She previously covered political and social issues as associate editor of U.S. Catholic magazine.