Wandering through the rambling streets and markets of Lhasa, watched over by the majestic Potala Palace, I found myself preoccupied with the thought that there must be more fire extinguishes per capita here than in any other city in the world. Soldiers and security guards march in formation around Barkhor Square with foam-filled red canisters strapped to their backs.
These fire extinguishes are in every room of every temple. They’re in abundance at every checkpoint, every street corner and every restaurant. The officially atheistic Communist Party doesn’t fear a Buddhist-equivalent of the Burning Bush sparking a wave of spiritual conversions; rather, these unconventional ‘weapons’ are close at hand to put out any Tibetans that set themselves alight to protest Chinese occupation and persecution.
Self-immolation, specifically by fire, is the de jour form of protest in Tibet these days. According to the advocacy group the International Campaign for Tibet, 136 Tibetans have self-immolated since February 2009. The most recent, a monk named Kalsang Yeshe, set fire to himself and died in the Tibetan area of Kham on 23rd December.
The Chinese authorities are eager to ensure these acts of protest remain largely unseen and Lhasa – well visited by national and international tourists, all armed with smartphones and cameras – is the place that poses the greatest threat to this strategy.
The effectiveness of this strange form of protest, after all, rests with how others respond. The more people that witness it first-hand, watch footage after the fact or hear or read about it, the more likely people will become engaged with the cause. At least that’s what conventional wisdom would suggest.
But for whatever reason, despite there being footage of several Tibetan self-immolations, they have received little attention and have failed to bring about any significant change in attitudes or reform. (I suspect this has a lot to do with larger challenges facing Tibetans; namely, China’s rising might and foreign governments – scared of getting the Asian giant offside – refusing to engage with the issue.) The absurdity of these self-immolations is that they continue, despite proving ineffective. Tibetans, if anything, are more repressed now than when the current wave of self-immolations begun.
The political and religious significance for those dousing themselves in fuel and setting themselves alight are obviously intertwined, but for those sympathetic to the plight of Tibetans but with no spiritual leanings, this wave of protests in incomprehensible. To think that less people are engaged with the campaign for Tibetan independence (or autonomy) today than, say, they were in 2008 when people across the world interrupted the Olympic torch relay in solidarity with Tibetans is frustrating and makes these self-immolations seem even more nonsensical.
By any measure these deaths have failed to mobilise support and it’s hard to see that changing. Compare this with the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in December 2010 in protest over harassment by municipal officials. His death was the catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution, which led, in turn, to the Arab Awakening. The context and conditions in these two distant parts of the world are vastly different and it’s perhaps unfair to compare the reactions, but it’s hard to find positives in such acts when no progress comes of them.
Unsympathetic to the idea of martyrdom and perhaps too preoccupied with the politics, I find myself completely divorced from this kind of activism and probably unable to ever truly understand it. Moreover, self-immolation and Buddhism seem inherently contradictory, which makes any rational analysis seems circular.
Take, for example, the question of violence. Pacifism is an important aspect of Buddhist teachings, but when living under repressive authoritarian regimes acts of protest, even if they begin peacefully, have a habit of escalating. It would be a crass generalisation to say all Buddhists adhere to these teachings – one only has to look at the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rogue or the Burmese military junta to know how wrong such blanket statements can be – but for individual Tibetans committed to both non-violence and taking a stand against Beijing their options are limited.
Self-immolation doesn’t do any physical harm to anyone else and, many would argue, that is the foundation for the belief in non-violence. Yet anyone who’s seen the footage of someone setting themselves on fire knows only too well that it is violent – you are watching someone willfully torture himself (or herself) to death.
This point may seem academic, but it must be at the heart of those devout Tibetans who decide to self-immolate. They don’t strap on suicide vests and blow themselves up in Tiananmen Square; the very suggestion would seem abhorrent, yet their grievances are not all that different from many suicide bombers. Moreover, no reasonable person could say the two acts are morally equivalent. But if a Tibetan deemed self-immolation an act of violence, presumably it too would be thought an unacceptable form of protest.
The Dalai Lama has weighed in on this debate, saying that suicide is an act of violence, but what’s important is what motivates the self-immolators. If they’re motivated by compassion rather than hatred or anger, then it’s ultimately acceptable under Buddhist teaching.
Implicit in this discussion about motivation is the idea that the act is selfless; although self-immolation is now usually associated with setting oneself alight, the word actually means ‘sacrifice.’ It’s not, in other words, a simple case of suicide. It’s to die for a cause – for something bigger than oneself. No doubt this is true, but it’s only part of it.
Understandably self-interest isn’t a motivation that those supporting the Tibetan cause want highlighted, but it’s hard to imagine any of the 136 self-immolators killing themselves if they didn’t think there’d be some sort of reward for them in the next life. But does this make their ‘sacrifice’ any less significant? Perhaps not, but it does imbue the whole thing with an unpalatable sense of fatalism, which, needless to say, has never served activists well. One can’t help but feel that if these individuals are so devoted to their cause that they’re willing to die for it, they could better serve the struggle alive.
Another curious aspect of self-immolation is that they tend to happen in waves; seemingly, people are inspired to set themselves on fire when they see or hear of their comrades doing it. So those who do choose to take this path ought to be aware that a consequence will be that someone else will do the same. Of course people have the ability to decide these things for themselves, but there’s a sinister groupthink mentality that seems to have taken hold in some parts of the Tibetan community and risks spiraling – if it’s not already – into some kind of suicide-cult.
The Tibetan struggle against China can – and often does – feel hopeless. One struggles to envisage a time when the Dalai Lama will be able to return to Lhasa, when Tibetans will be free to practice their religion, when the cities will be rid of soldiers and Chinese flags replaced with Tibetan ones.
But this sense that it’s a lost cause is hardly new to marginal groups that take on more powerful opponents. It’s far from unusual for activists to feel their struggle is futile and the world absurd. Albert Camus – a man who witnessed both Nazi occupation of France and French colonial rule in Algeria – asked: Does this realisation demand suicide? His answer was a resounding no: ‘The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart’, he wrote. ‘One must imagine Sisyphus [a figure in Greek mythology condemned to forever push a boulder up a hill only for it to roll back down again] happy.’ In times of hopelessness Tibetans would be well served to remember these words.
(This was originally published on 12th February, 2015 in Countercurrent.org)