‘Wherever there is oppression, there is resistance.’
For all the book’s flaws, Albert Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus remains one of the best encapsulations of what it means to engage in political struggle. Faced with insurmountable adversity, in Camus’ meaningless world the only answer is to make resistance one’s raison d’être. How, then, does one square the injunction to ‘imagine Sisyphus happy’ with the almost certain death of those Tibetans who, in protesting Chinese rule, self-immolate?
In a recently published book, Tibet on Fire, poet, essayist, blogger and leading Tibetan dissident Tsering Woeser challenges many of the assumptions—often unconsciously informed by a Western cultural bias—made about self-immolation and the broader Tibetan struggle.
All too often Western progressives are dismissive of religion and refuse to take its radical core seriously. But, as Susan Buck-Morss has argued, this rigidity and lack of imagination isolates those for whom atheism is a precondition of their ‘progressivism’from the majority of the world’s population. If one is serious about bringing about change, it means rescuing and reinventing the revolutionary power of religion.
For many Tibetans the political and the religious are inseparable. But religion is also part of the reason that Tibet is one of the most difficult places in the world to be an activist: Tibetans are constrained not only by the Chinese police state but also by their abiding, absolutist belief in non-violence. For readers from a more Westerncentric radical tradition, Woeser’s book presents a number of challenges in terms of thinking about direct action within tightly constrained ethical and moral boundaries (but more on that later).
Firstly, it’s important to understand what the wave of selfimmolations since the 2008 Beijing Olympics have grown out of because, contrary to what many assume, there is no tradition of selfimmolation in Tibetan culture. Woeser makes the point that, instead of viewing them as individual acts, they should be viewed as part of a broader collective resistance. They are a continuation of the popular protests that erupted in March 2008; since then, around 145 Tibetans have set themselves on fire.
The Chinese Communist Party has depicted these protests as the work of‘ ‘terrorists’ and ‘separatists’ carrying out orders from the ‘Dalai clique’. In reality, Tibetans were simply responding to decades of occupation and persecution. The protests began peacefully in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, before spreading throughout the Tibetan Plateau. On 10 March, Tibetans gathered to commemorate Uprising Day, which marks the anniversary of their 1959 insurrection against the Communist Party. It’s a day of great national (read: Tibetan) pride, but it’s also imbued with a profound sense of sadness and loss, since it was this event that drove the Dalai Lama into exile, from which he’s never returned.
Led by the monks, great saffron hordes marched through the streets of Lhasa and occupied public places. The Chinese security forces were cautious—aware that, with the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, the world was watching a little more closely. In China the Olympics were widely seen as the beginning of a new era—a period in which a more confident China was accepted as a leading global power. The horrors of Tiananmen Square in 1989 had faded; yet, on the eve of the biggest international event in China since then, scenes in Lhasa were beginning to look hauntingly familiar.
Some Chinese security personnel tried to prevent the monks from assembling and, while there were isolated reports of violence committed against protesters, officials were keen to avoid scenes of large-scale riots being beamed throughout the world. But that’s exactly what soon happened. Just after lunchtime on 14 March, four days after the protests had begun, a riot broke out after bystanders went to the assistance of monks who were being roughed up by security officials. As more laypeople intervened, police and security officials—realising they were outnumbered and that they’d lost control of the situation—fled the scene. Many in the crowd then turned their anger toward the Han Chinese civilians who have migrated to Tibet and, in the eyes of many Tibetans, have corrupted their culture and hijacked their economy. As many as 1200 Chinese shops, offices and residences were ransacked and burnt. In his book on the uprising, Tibet’s Last Stand, Warren W. Smith Jr. writes that ‘[t]hree hundred twenty-five people, mostly Han Chinese, were injured and twenty-two, mostly Han shopkeepers, were killed. Total damage was estimated at 280 million Yuan (40 million U.S. dollars)’. Lhasa was put into military lockdown, but the protests spread throughout the Plateau as monks and laypeople continued to defy Beijing and take to the streets.
The crackdown, which continues to this day, came swiftly and with significant force. Soldiers and security personnel flooded Tibet in unprecedented numbers, while electronic surveillance was installed throughout the cities to ensure the state’s gaze was allconsuming. This radically changed the lives of ordinary Tibetans. All of a sudden, Lhasa, the spiritual home of Tibetan Buddhism, was transformed into an occupied city. I remember being there in April 2013 and noting that there were military or security officers on literally every street corner. Armoured vehicles patrolled the roads and squares. The entrances to temples were fitted with metal detectors and uniformed men patted down anyone wanting to enter.
But these changes were just the most visible for someone like me who was passing through. For ordinary Tibetans, their lives were taken over by the increasingly authoritarian Chinese state. People caught criticising the Chinese regime or found with a photo of the Dalai Lama or a snow lion flag risked being imprisoned.
I glimpsed how life—stripped of its most fundamental freedoms, and with constant threats, fears and suspicions—had changed for Tibetans in the wake of the 2008 protests.
On one of those perfect days that are the preserve of high-altitude living, we were driving through the snow-capped mountains on our way from Lhasa to Tibet’s secondlargest city, Shigatse. All day my Tibetan companion had spoken freely about his people’s plight, the importance of preserving Tibetan language and culture and his hopes for the future. Later that afternoon, while showing me around Tashilhunpo Monastry, I asked him a pointed question and, instead of answering, he twitched his head awkwardly and walked away. I wanted to know what he thought had happened to the Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped by Chinese authorities in 1995 when he was just six years old. I was curious to know how it had shaped his attitudes towards Beijing. I followed him back to our car and apologised for intruding. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk about it, he explained—in fact, he was comforted that people outside Tibet knew the story—but that the monastery was likely bugged and if he was caught talking about the Panchen Lama’s kidnapping he could be jailed. I have no idea whether the Chinese government was listening in to our conversation, but that’s, in a sense, beside the point. The fact that the government has Tibetans thinking that way is what really matters: totalitarianism 2.0 no longer requires all those informers with their, well, human flaws.
This oppression is what, according to Woeser, motivates Tibetan self-immolators. She quotes, approvingly, the chief abbot of Kirti Monastery, Kirti Rinpoche, who believes there
is no greater expression of their desperate opposition to the Chinese government than by resorting to the most powerful method of a nonviolent movement, which is by refraining from causing any harm to the Chinese people and appealing to the Chinese government, than by setting themselves on fire.
In other words, self-immolation is not an expression of hopelessness. It is, rather, a proactive form of resistance designed to challenge Chinese colonialism. She supports this with a study of forty-nine final statements from self-immolators. Collected in her book, the final statements are categorised thematically: ‘taking action’(which, to me, is too broad an idea; fifteen statements),‘praying for the Dalai Lama’(thirteen),‘showing courage and responsibility’(twelve),‘national identity and solidarity’(eleven),‘promoting Tibetan independence’ and ‘protests against the government and demands for change’(nine).
Then there are eight statements, which sit incongruously among the rest, classified as ‘unable to bear life’. This is understandable in light of what many Tibetans are forced to endure on a personal level, but also, more broadly, they’re watching their history and culture be systematically destroyed. The problem, however, is that Woeser claims ‘selfimmolation is not suicide, and it is not a gesture of despair. Rather, self-immolation is a sacrifice for a greater cause, and an attempt to press for change…’. There’s an obvious inconsistency between her data and her analysis.
Her issue with the characterisation of selfimmolation as suicide is a semantic one: she wants self-immolation to be completely disassociated from ideas of despair, helplessness, hopelessness and nihilism. Nor is she happy with self-immolation as a descriptor: ‘In fact, the “self” has ironically not been prominent in these acts of self-immolation. The continued use of this term to refer to these singular acts of magnanimity is thus far more revealing of the poverty of language than the act itself’. Perhaps this is true, and she offers a couple of alternatives:
It seems that we need a new term to describe these protests in Tibet—a term that might begin to live up to these acts of sacrifice. On the tightly controlled Chinese Internet, where the term ‘self-immolation’ is blocked, young Tibetans use the term ‘lamp-offering,’ referring to the butter-oil lamps lit and offered before the image of the Buddha in Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as a metaphor for those who have offered their bodies for the cause. Others say ‘a lamp has been lit’ when a self-immolation occurs, to give voice to the religious meaning of these acts of self-sacrifice and offering.
They have a subversive edge too, which fits in more broadly with the tradition of political struggle. It’s also a way of exerting some control over how the issue is framed; undoubtedly, it’s important that China, as the hegemonic power, isn’t allowed to control the discourse around Tibet and self-immolation.
Nonetheless, Woeser’s insistence that self-immolation not be thought of as suicide seems more like an effort to avoid some of the more complex questions around this radical act. It’s one thing to ask, as Camus does, whether one should commit suicide knowing that life is essentially futile and absurd; it’s another thing altogether to be suicidal. Have self-immolators just answered ‘yes’ to Camus’ one truly serious philosophical question? Or is it a ‘yes’ with a caveat? Suicide is fine, as long it’s driven by altruism.
This would hardly make self-immolators unique. There are plenty of people who have died for a greater good. Thus self-immolation sits easily within Émile Durkheim’s classical sociological work Suicide as an act of‘altruistic suicide’. However, that some have expressed an inability ‘to bear life’ as a reason for carrying out self-immolation suggests that there may also be cases of fatalistic suicide.
For Woeser, the morality and honour of burning oneself as a form of protest is paramount and, one suspects, central to her insistence that self-immolation is not suicide. But by assuming too narrow a concept of suicide, she inhibits understanding. The morality of the action is not interrogated; it’s taken for granted and asserted. She fails to articulate what Schopenhauer understood: that suicide is not necessarily the loss of the will to live. Rather, it’s a refusal to live under circumstances prescribed from above (in the political, not the religious sense). For Schopenhauer, this was the highest possible expression of moral freedom.
For Woeser, central to the question of the morality of self-immolation is whether it adheres to the Buddhist dharma, specifically the commitment to non-violence. As with the question of suicide, this is something she asserts, rather than questions or examines in any significant way. Yet, anyone who has watched footage of someone drench himself (most, but not all Tibetan self-immolators have been male) in petrol, light a match and let the flames gorge on every part of his body cannot but feel that they’re watching something—even if directed against the self—that is inherently violent.
She draws the comparison between self-immolation and hunger strikes as a form of protest.‘Hunger strikes’, she claims,‘are already an accepted and respected form of protest; self-immolation, by comparison, produces a unique discomfort and an impulse to shield one’s eyes’. But it’s a false comparison. The flames and the burning are infinitely more visceral than a prolonged starvation. It’s an instinctive reflex to ‘shield one’s eyes’ when someone is burning to death— irrespective of who set them on fire and what the reason for it might be. Hunger strikes are drawn out; death comes slowly and thus there is a period in which dialogue can occur. As a form of protest, they seem more rational and measured. In the struggle for Indian independence, the great poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore objected to Gandhi’s hunger strike, claiming that it was a violent act that, if carried through, would kill him. For Tagore, it was a betrayal of his friend’s absolutist belief in non-violence. There’s no such meditation in Tibet on Fire
To a Western reader much of this dialectic can seem needlessly tedious—I’ve never found myself questioning the morality or honour of those who burn themselves to death. These things are self-evident to me, whereas they have obviously caused great consternation within the Tibetan community. What I wanted to read more about—what I still can’t fully grasp—is why self-immolation? There is a mystique, a power about it that makes it unlike any other act of resistance. And as an action it defies categorisation: it’s more than a protest, a suicide or a measure of one’s devoutness, yet it’s also all these things.
If motivation is important from a spiritual point of view, then outcomes are important from a political perspective. Indeed, Woeser writes that self-immolation ‘is not to be judged by the precepts of Buddhism: it can only be judged by its political results’. Although she seems to waver from this demand herself at times (how can one not, the political and the religious being so entwined?), it makes certain judgements and assessments—from a Western perspective—less complicated. After all, there’s a certain universality to politics that makes it easily translatable.
Thus, when a French journalist asks Woeser, ‘These acts of self-immolation seem useless, don’t they?’, he’s expressing a purely political point of view—one that’s widely held by many in the West. Woeser’s response is instructive: ‘Even if these acts of protest are useless, people still need dignity. And that is what selfimmolators are seeking: dignity for our people’. They are speaking at cross purposes: he’s focused on the political gains, while she’s commenting on the motivation.
In the final chapter, Woeser turns to the question of political gains more directly and asks: ‘Are we facing, in this wave of protest, the untimely death of Tibet?’ Her answer is surprising, in both its form and its softly optimistic tone.‘Such a conclusion’, she writes,‘overlooks many positive signs of new types of action, and even awakenings across the Tibetan Plateau, spurred on by these tragic deaths’. These events have undoubtedly had a significant impact on the oppressed Tibetans that remain in their homelands. Woeser writes of how ‘[b]eyond the immediate act itself, the stories and final statements of self-immolators have been widely shared and discussed, and they have had an extremely strong impact throughout Tibetan society’. It has led to thousands of Tibetans giving up their weapons and vowing to put their internal differences aside to stand together in opposition to Beijing’s rule. These developments, Woeser argues, are significant:
The size and scale of these activities suggest that they are not simple cases of a few people giving up weapons. They have a deeper and more lasting meaning, giving new life to this longstanding Tibetan practice. They are born of a reflection upon the future, which remains full of danger, and an awakening about the present. And this awakening leads to a solution—one possible solution among many, but one with an enduring tradition in Tibet itself. And this solution is nonviolence.
For many Western progressives, it may be difficult to see how this is any kind of‘solution’ at all. It seems altogether too fatalistic—the idea that a persecuted people would engineer a situation in which the regime oppressing them has a monopoly on all weapons seems more like a kind of resignation.
But for Tibetans it is a reaffirmation of their most fundamental belief. Some scholars have termed China’s treatment of Tibet ‘cultural genocide’: the special connection between a people and their place is being systematically destroyed. Tibetan culture will live on in Dharamsala and other exile communities, even as Tibetans’ spiritual homeland is sinocised and transformed into a kind of playground for wealthy Chinese to escape the toxic air of the cities. In such an environment, the preservation of the most essential elements of Tibetan culture becomes more important and more challenging than ever. This is, in and of itself, an act of resistance: it is a reassertion of a collective honour and dignity and a refusal to accept the destruction of one’s culture.
Woeser believes that the only thing that can bring a halt to the wave of self-immolations is an end to the ‘unyielding ethnic oppression and systemic tyranny’ waged by the Communist Party. This rational analysis shouldn’t be misconstrued as an acceptance of defeat; nonetheless, it’s difficult to read. One-hundred and forty-five Tibetans have already self-immolated and this hasn’t brought about any hint of a change in policy from Beijing; if Woeser is right, Tibetans will continue burning themselves to death for the foreseeable future. Such a realisation presents a number of challenges: Woeser and many other prominent Tibetans have previously called on their compatriots not to self-immolate, yet one does not want those earlier statements to lessen or undermine the sacrifice of those who have self-immolated in any way.
Today, the instances of self-immolation go unreported in the media. The disappearance of the issue from the Western public consciousness is all the more surprising given that the Free Tibet movement was more prominent in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics than it had otherwise been in recent memory. Pro-Tibetan protestors followed the torch relay along the journey through Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. In some places this led to clashes between protestors and security. But after the Olympics, just as the wave of self-immolations was beginning, the world lost interest. Undoubtedly, the Olympics provided a reason to mobilise and the torch relay an event to disrupt, but the way that sympathy for Tibetans living under Chinese oppression dissipated was, nonetheless, very abrupt. One’s inclined to think that the self-immolations themselves played a part in this. As Woeser repeatedly notes, the West simply doesn’t understand self-immolation as a form of protest—perhaps it is incapable of understanding. In Western secular cultures, people setting themselves on fire for politico-religious reasons has overtones of a kind of fanaticism that makes many people uncomfortable.
This is not a reason for self-immolators to rethink their tactics. If there is going to be significant change in Tibet it needs to start with those Tibetans living under occupation. Solidarity from the international community helps, but it will never be a substitute for bottom-up direct action. Similarly, those in the West who support an independent Tibet are, of course, free to think about, question and debate the current wave of self-immolations; coming from a different tradition, such Westerners will likely have issues with the practice. But, ultimately, the decision on how best to resist Chinese oppression rests with those doing the resisting.
In an effort to square Tibet’s wave of selfimmolators with Camus’ Sisyphean dictum, I used to wonder, in a pop-theological kind of way, whether the Buddhist belief in reincarnation meant that the protestors believed they would go on to continue their struggle, albeit in another, reincarnated form. This was little more than an effort to find an intellectual loophole so that I could neatly align self-immolation with my values. Woeser, instead, provides a Tibetan perspective on an issue too little understood in the West.
(This was originally published in Arena No. 145, 12 2016 – 01 2017.)