Tibet is Burning: Is the Freedom Movement Entering a New Phase?

As a journalist and a writer of Tibetan origin, I can not help but say something about what has been happening inside Tibet of late. Since March 2011, at least nine Tibetans, most of them teens and some in their early 20s, have set themselves on fire. The self-immolation by young Tibetans has triggered outrage and protests by exiled Tibetans around the world—a Global Day of Action is scheduled for November 2. 

Why are Tibetan youth dousing themselves in kerosene and setting themselves alight in such large numbers? It is quite clear that the situation inside Tibet is pretty grim. And it has been bad for a long time.

The “Arab Spring” has galvanized freedom movements around the world and Tibet is no exception. If things could change so fast in Egypt or in Libya, then why not Tibet? Even as China has been clearly intensifying its crackdown on religion, Tibetans are ramping up their campaign to raise awareness and bring attention to their predicament.

And of course, the participation of monks and nuns in freedom movements is not new—the peaceful ‘Shangri-La’ image of Tibetan monks belies a history of many armed struggles, often aimed at the “enemies of Buddhism.” Monks not only fought in the 1950s as members of the famed guerilla organization, Chushi Gangdruk (Four River and Six Ranges) against the People’s Liberation Army; some of the monks served as key commanders. More recently, a significant number of monks took part in the much-reported demonstrations against Chinese rule in 2008 and 2009 in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.

We have seen it not only in Tibet but also in countries like Burma, where monks led large-scale protests against the ruling junta in 2007. And, sadly, the image of a burning monk is also not new. The grisly pictures of charred bodies of Tibetan monks immediately recalls the iconic photo of Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc who burnt himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest against persecution by a Catholic regime (the photographer Malcolm Browne got a Pulitzer Prize for the image). The media coverage of burning Tibetans, however, has been relatively muted. Recent coverage has been eclipsed by the reports of the war in Libya and the protests on the Wall Street; not to speak of the lack of media freedom and strict censorship inside Tibet.

Yet the practice of self-immolation is not without precedent in recent Tibetan history. Thubten Ngodup, a 50-year-old exiled Tibetan living in India, died in the Indian capital, New Delhi, in April 1998 after he burnt himself to protest against the Chinese rule. 

The radicalization of monks of such youth certainly raises a lot of important questions. Will there be more suicides in the weeks and months to come, and will it spill over into the exile community? Does the trend underscore the view that nonviolence does not mean a mere absence of violence, but a commitment to action? Does the Tibetan movement have the potential, like other recent movements, to manifest itself in more aggressive forms? Or, has self-immolation become a new modus operandi of the Tibetan movement?

Whatever the answers, it does seem that the movement for Tibetan freedom is indeed entering a new phase.