In occupied Tibet, the once-isolated “Land of Snow” that has been converted into a hell on Earth for its indigenous inhabitants, the oppressed are literally setting themselves alight in protest against Chinese policies.
At least six Tibetans have self-immolated since the start of the year, bringing the total number of such incidents to 100. The first reported case occurred in February 2009, but all other reported burnings have taken place since March 2011.
At least 82 of the cases have been fatal. Survivors are subjected to harsh punitive measures by Chinese authorities.
FreeTibet.org said the identities of the first four victims this year are are: Tsering Tashi, aged 22, Dupchoek, 28, Jigji Kyab, 17, and Kunchok Kyab, 26.
It was also reported in the New York Times that a 37-year-old Buddhist monk, Lobsam Namygal, self-immolated on February 3 outside an office of the public security bureau in Sichuan Province.
On the morning of February 13, an as-yet unidentified Tibetan monk sacrificed himself near a Buddhist stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, dying later that day in hospital with burns to 96% of his body. All cases this year have been fatal.
In scale, Tibet’s self-immolation crisis exceeds that of historical precedents, such as the case of Vietnam in the 1960s. The aim of the Buddhist monks who gave their lives in south Vietnam was to draw attention to the brutal nature of the US-backed Diem military dictatorship.
In Tibet, a society that remains profoundly Buddhist in spite of decades of misplaced “re-education” efforts, a similar impulse has motivated the protesters.
Wande Khar, who self-immolated in November, used his last words to call “for freedom in Tibet, the release of political prisoners and for language and religious rights”, FreeTibet.org said. Many other self-immolators have expressed similar sentiments.
Xinhua, the state-run Chinese newsagency, has, after three years of silence, tried to portray the self-immolators as isolated fanatics. But the truth is that they are often revered by their local communities. Large-scale protests involving thousands of demonstrators have regularly accompanied the burnings.
Rather than engage in acts of bloodshed against the invader, the Tibetan self-immolators have opted for public suicide in a bid to highlight the desperate plight of their country. As one Tibetan poet and blogger, Sengdor, put it in 2011, for most Tibetans “the sadness of living is more painful than death”.
The loss of life is profoundly disturbing and there have been many Tibetan voices that have questioned such tactics. Yet, at the same time, many have acknowledged the bravery of the self-immolators and called for the Chinese government to examine the root cause of the crisis the brutal exploitation of Tibet by a foreign power.
The Dalai Lama’s position captures the complexity of the issue: “I will not give encouragement to these acts, these drastic actions, but it is understandable and indeed very, very sad.
“Now the Chinese government, they should investigate what are the real causes. They can easily blame me or some Tibetans but that won’t help solve the problem.”
Non-violence is a core Buddhist teaching, though within the Buddhist context it is also acceptable to offer one’s life in defence of others when compelled to do so by extreme circumstances. And Tibet’s circumstances are as extreme as any other besieged indigenous society on earth.
The Chinese occupiers, who ostensibly entered Tibet in 1951 as “liberators”, have presided over the systematic rape of this vast mountainous land, killing at least one-sixth of the population in a process that many international commentators have referred to as genocidal in intent and effect.
Six million Tibetans lived in Tibet at the time of the invasion. Most estimates reckon that 1-1.2 million have died as a direct result of Chinese occupation (a greater proportional death toll than even such horrors as the Japanese occupation of China in the 1930s and 1940s).
China still seethes with officially-encouraged resentment toward the Japanese over World War II atrocities (which were horrific). Yet it refuses to acknowledge the reality of its own crimes in Tibet, much like Israeli society remembering the Holocaust while turning a blind eye to its own appalling human rights record in Palestine.
As well as mass killings, the Chinese occupiers have tried to exterminate Tibet’s distinct language and ancient culture. Acts of cultural vandalism on a shocking scale have led to an almost incalculable loss.
Of the 6000 monasteries in Tibet before the invasion, boasting precious art works and libraries of international scholarly significance, only six remain.
Environmentally, the occupation has resulted in the clear-felling of many of Tibet’s forests (located mainly in Eastern Tibet, in provinces now annexed by China).
Nuclear waste has been recklessly dumped in the Tibetan plateau and rare species such as the Tibetan antelope have been over-hunted for their pelts to the verge of extinction. Political prisons hold tens of thousands of Tibetans in conditions of constant neglect and frequent brutality.
Great imperial powers tend to act uniformly in their treatment of subject peoples, a fact transcending superficial ideological differences. Chinese policies in Tibet have nothing to do with socialism, and are every bit as abhorrent as the practices of Western imperialists that Chinese leaders claims to condemn.
In reality, they emulate these practices closely at the expense not just Tibetans but a vast and growing underclass of dispossessed Chinese peasants too.
Beijing’s campaign of piracy is only set to worsen. Tibet’s largely untapped reserves of mineral wealth is firmly in the Chinese leaders sights as key to China’s industrial development.
Recent years have led to a dramatic upsurge in mining activity in Tibet, which holds vast reserves of copper, iron ore and other metals worth at least US$128 billion.
Various foreign mining companies (mainly small to medium size) have begun extractive operations in Tibet, at the invitation of the Chinese government.
Geologically, the Tibetan plateau is said to be similar to the Andean mountain chain in South America. The mineral deposits occur in similar patterns, following similar spread and distribution.
The similarities do not stop there. Anthropologists have pointed to the remarkable ethnographic similarities between several Himalayan population groups and the indigenous inhabitants of the Andes. During the last ice age, tribal people from what is now Tibet moved north and crossed the Beringia land bridge into America in one of humankind’s most epic journeys.
Today, the people of Andes and the Himalayas are also connected through a common struggle against the environmentally destructive activities of mining companies. Both groups have been occupied by “market forces” and face the prospect of annihilation within the next century.
As in Peru, popular anti-mining protests have taken place in Tibet, prompting swift and severe retaliation on the part of the Chinese (especially since 2008, when the eyes of the world were distracted by the gaudy spectacle of the Beijing Olympics).
Many Tibetan protesters have been shot and killed by Chinese security forces. With a climate of terror prevailing in every corner of the land, most young Tibetans feel there is simply no future.
Whether living behind physical bars or not, all Tibetans have to some extent been incarcerated and condemned by their occupiers.