‘To free ourselves is to trespass, and to transform. It is through a creation of the new that that which has not yet existed begins to exist. To free yourself is to trespass. To trespass is to exist. To free ourselves is to exist.’

Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed

On 22nd November 2006, Lhakpa Tsering decided the best course of action was to set himself on fire. This hadn’t always been part of the plan; in fact, Lhakpa had spent much of the previous month making other plans, but when they were thwarted at the last minute he saw no other way. Self-immolation, he reasoned, was the only card left to play.

At the time, Lhakpa was a university student in Bangalore and the regional president of the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), a progressive organisation for Tibetan independence; he’d spent months organising a large protest against the Chinese President Hu Jintao. Hu had risen to the pinnacle of the Chinese state bureaucracy, in part, because of his repressive and authoritarian rule as Party Regional Committee Secretary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. In the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising – the failed rebellion that led to China imposing its oppressive rule over Tibet, forcing the Dalai Lama to flee – unrest was growing in the province; more and more Tibetans – monks, nuns and laypeople – were coming into the streets to join the pro-independence protests. Hu oversaw the government’s response: in a prelude to what would take place in Tiananmen Square just three months later, journalists and tourists were expelled from the region, martial law was declared and security forces fired upon protesters. In his magisterial history of modern Tibet, The Dragon in the Land of Snows, Tsering Shakya estimates that over the three days of fighting between seventy-five and seven hundred and fifty Tibetans were killed as security forces fought to regain control of the city.

It was these crimes – largely forgotten or excused or ignored by the rest of the world – that Lhakpa and his fellow Tibetans were protesting. But when the India government got wind of their plans, Hu’s Bangalore meeting was moved to Mumbai. Lhakpa and small group of university students rushed to the coastal city, but the majority of people who’d planned to join the protest were left stranded in Bangalore.

Many Tibetan workers and small business owners migrate south for India’s winter months, so Lhakpa and his fellow organisers hoped to mobilise this community to ensure their protest would be well attended. But when they arrived in Mumbai they learnt that Indian security forces had already warned the traders and shopkeepers that if they joined the protests their actions would be treated as illegal and they’d prevented from doing any future business in the city.

That evening, reassessing the situation, Lhakpa still wanted to put on a ‘big protest’, but it was clear there’d be no mass rally – only about thirty-five of the original protesters had been able to make it to Mumbai. He considered climbing and hanging banners from the Gateway of India – the large, arch monument opposite the Taj Hotel, where Hu was being hosted by the Indian government – but was worried he’d damage the basalt symbol of the Raj’s majesty and power, which would inevitably invite the ire of the Indian government, a scenario Lhakpa was keen to avoid. ‘I wanted to do something very special without harming anyone,’ he recounts from his home in Dharamshala, India. ‘So, then I didn’t find any other option. So, that’s why I chose self-immolation.’

The protests begun in their usual style: Tibetan flags were flown, placards were waved and slogans were chanted. Then, detecting a lull, Lhakpa doused the lower half of his body in kerosene and ignited the accelerant; instantly, flames begun devouring his trousers and gorging on his legs. ‘If I was burning from the top then I cannot speak out,’ he explains. ‘So I thought fire burning from downside and I can speak from upside, so I planned it that way. So, my lower half burned and my upper half was saved.’ As the fire consumed him, Lhakpa continued shouting pro-Tibetan and anti-Chinese slogans: ‘Free Tibet… Hu Jintao is a killer.’ He remembers being pushed from behind and, while he lay on the ground, someone extinguished the flames.

He spent the next eight months in hospital; even now, his legs swell in the heat of summer and his scarred skin cracks in the winter. Reflecting on that day all these years later, Lhakpa considers it a ‘great success’ because his self-immolation became the main story of Hu’s state visit. It was even covered by the BBC, he tells me proudly.

*          *          *

Lhakpa was born in 1983 in Lamphuk, a small village in the Tsona district of southern Tibet. Lamphuk is close to the disputed China-India border, but as a child he was oblivious to the geo-political significance of the remote and unremarkable land he called home. He thought it entirely normal that, as a six-year-old primary school student, lessons involved learning how to clean a gun. When, at thirteen, it came time to learn how to fire it, Lhakpa was already comfortable and confident handling weapons. In this isolated territory, where supply lines were difficult to access in summer and completely cut-off in winter, the Tibetan villagers of Lamphuk would be enlisted into the militia of the occupying force and, if the Indian army crossed the border, they’d become the frontline defence.  

At around the age he was learning to handle a gun, Lhakpa’s mother – whose first husband, Lhakpa’s father, had died three years earlier – remarried; shortly after moving in, Lhakpa’s stepfather begun abusing him. ‘All the time beating me,’ he recounts, ‘not only physically torturing me, but mentally [too]. He was always beating me, night and day. In the icy water, he used to send me early in the morning to wash clothes and then afterwards, with freezing hands, he forced me to put on the fire – it was so painful.’

Lhakpa’s existence came to be dominated by violence; the stress of living under military occupation was compounded by the daily abuse dished out by his stepfather. When he was eight, Lhakpa tried to run away for the first time. But, time and again, Tibetans living in the surrounds of his village would find him, return him home, lecture him on the importance of family and scold him for being a disobedient son. Eventually, Lhakpa reasoned that if he wanted to escape for good he’d have to flee towards the enemy, India, where, in spite of what he’d been raised to believe, he’d at least be free from his stepfather. ‘So,’ in July 1991, ‘I just crossed the border without thinking,’ he says blithely.        

Lhakpa had heard the Dalai Lama lived in India, but everything else he knew about the land just across the border came via Chinese propaganda; he’d never met an Indian and the only ones he’d ever seen wore fatigues and carried weapons. ‘So, in my mind, I thought maybe I’d join the Indian army.’ The casualness of this comment belies his innocence and vulnerability; it’s a mark of how intolerable life had become, that he saw the nation he’d been reared to hate as a potential haven. Indeed, the discovery that it was seems to have shaped his attitude and attachment to his exile home; he’s quick to defend not only its government and people, but also what Perry Anderson called ‘the Indian Ideology – the triune values of democracy, secularity and unity.’ When he tells me, ‘I was arrested by the Indian Intelligence Bureau on the border area and kept…[there] for four months,’ I ask whether he was kept in a detention facility or prison, at which point he becomes frustrated that I’ve misunderstood him and explains carefully that, no, he was kept in the military camp, where ‘they were very kind to me; they helped me very much.’

After leaving the military camp, Lhakpa was taken to the Tibetan Children’s Village, a school for destitute and refugee children, in Dharamshala. As a stateless orphan, he sometimes talks about India as if it’s a de facto parent. ‘They [the Indian government] admitted me to school… I was looked after by them so I didn’t have to worry about anything.’ He feels indebted to India and at times seems frustrated – even dejected – that other Tibetan exiles don’t feel the same way.

It wasn’t until he arrived in Dharamshala, he explains, that he begun to feel ‘like a real Tibetan.’ As he learnt more about Tibet’s history and how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power there, he begun to pair what he was being taught with what he’d experienced living on the other side of the border. These formative years laid the foundations for his future activism. After he graduated from high school, Lhakpa went on to study economics, sociology and political science at university, before completing his masters in public administration and international relations. But it was outside the classroom, among his peers and increasingly politicised, that Lhakpa’s future really begun to take shape. By the time he was appointed President of the Bangalore chapter of the TYC he had already made the decision to devote his life – and, if need be, give his life – to the Tibetan cause.

*          *          *

‘Death in the flame is the least lonely of deaths. It is truly a cosmic death in which a whole universe is reduced to nothingness along with the thinker.’

Gaston Bachelard, The Psychoanalysis of Fire

‘Among all phenomena, it [fire] is really the only one to which there can be so definitely attributed the opposing values of good and evil’, writes Bachelard. ‘It shines in Paradise. It burns in Hell. It is gentleness and torture. It is cookery and it is apocalypse.’ Fire’s variegated meaning and value predates antiquity and is common to cultures that never knew the other existed, including Tibetan civilisation. 

In her book, Tibet on Fire, Woeser writes that ‘[t]hese events in Tibet constitute the largest wave of self-immolation as a tool of political protest in the modern world – yet there is no such tradition is Tibetan history.’ While this may be true, strictly speaking, notions of sacrifice and fire and their relationship to one another permeate Tibetan Buddhism. The notion of fire as a purifier is implicit, as this sixteenth century liturgy for the performance of sang, or incense fumigation, demonstrates:

May my sins and obscurations, accumulated throughout the three times,

My [illicit] enjoyment of the wealth of the saṅgha and of the deceased,

Be purified by this fire-offering.

May each particle of each flame, filling space,

Become an inexhaustible mass of good offerings

Pervading all the fields of the Buddhas.

May the gift of this offering in the flames, gnostic light,

Pervade the abodes of the six classes down to the lowest hell…

And may all beings awaken as Buddhas in the heart of enlightenment!

Better known and far more influential, the Lotus Sūtra includes a passage in which, upon seeing the bodhisattva self-immolated, the Buddha says:

Excellent, excellent, good man! This is true diligence. This is what is called a true Dharma offering to the Thus Come One…. Good men, this is called the foremost donation of all. Among all donations, this is most highly prized, for one is offering the Dharma to the Thus Come One.

*          *          *

When Lhakpa set himself on fire in 2006, there had only been one other recorded instance of self-immolation in Tibetan society. On 27th April 1998, Thubten Ngodrup self-immolated in Delhi when Indian police broke up a TYC hunger strike. Video of the event was widely circulated in the exile community and Lhakpa mentions it when talking about his own self-immolation. Ultimately, he says, he ‘wanted to do something very special without harming anyone.’ He certainly doesn’t mention the Lotus Sūtra or any other religious motivation, nor is his answer unique or uncommon. Most Tibetans consider self-immolation a non-violent act, acceptable in a society in which the influence of the Dalai Lama’s uncompromising pacifisms has been profound. Yet, it doesn’t seem to provide much illumination on why or how, in the years since, self-immolation has morphed into a macabre mass movement.

In March 2008, the largest anti-Chinese protests since perhaps the 1959 Uprising broke out in Tibet. Monks initially led the demonstrations, but they were soon joined by laypeople as unrest spread across the plateau. They called for freedom and independence and some defiantly marched with the Tibetan national flag, an act of immense courage since the last monk to carry the flag in protest, in 1988, was shot through the head. With the Beijing Olympics just around the corner, the CCP initially responded cautiously, but it wasn’t long before their crackdown turned violent. It’s not known how many were killed in the riots, but in the aftermath Tibet became an even more repressive police state. Since then, nearly one hundred and fifty Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest over the Chinese occupation of their country. (Given the remoteness of much of the region and the lengths the CCP go to to control the flow of information, the number is likely higher).

In some important ways Lhakpa is outlier in the current wave of self-immolations: his protest pre-dates the 2008 uprising; while he understood the very real possibility that he could die, he did not seek death; his motivation was narrowly focused on drawing attention away from Hu Jintao’s state visit and to his crimes as an official in Tibet and he is only one of ten exiles to self-immolate. But, as is often the case, self-immolations occur in waves – concentrated in an area or community and clustered in time. These are not the result of deliberate coordination, but a collective response to a collective grievance. Lhakpa, as an inspiration or a forerunner to the current spate of self-immolations in the Tibetan community, is, therefore, uniquely qualified to speak about the mass movement that he is now tangentially part of.

‘What we must understand is that self-immolation is a form of protest. And insofar as it is a form of protest, so long as their roots causes are not resolved, the protests will not cease’, writes Woeser. ‘The only force that can bring a halt to these protests is the Chinese Communist Party, whose exercise of unyielding ethnic oppression and systematic tyranny has forced our people to rise up in protest.’ Lhakpa, on the other hand, seems to instinctively understand the conundrum that Professor Michael Biggs, who’s written perceptively on the subject, also recognises; that ‘the repetition of self-immolation for one specific collective cause…is subject to diminished marginal returns. At some point, even this most awe-inspiring of actions begins to lose its impact.’  

The Tibetan struggle has been strengthened by the self-immolations, Lhakpa says, because ‘Tibetan people all over the world – especially youngsters – have a growing sense of nationalism and patriotism.’ On this basis, they have been a ‘big success.’ ‘But we are also losing a lot of needed people’, he continues. ‘So, that is the big loss for us. If we work out our loss and gain, loss is more – that is what I feel.’

Since he self-immolated, Lhakpa has shed his Manichean view of the world. He laments that there is a split in the community between those who call for independence, like the TYC, and those who seek autonomy, like the Dalai Lama. Unlike many, he doesn’t see these positions as mutually exclusive; while Tibetans mustn’t abandon the idea of independence, he says, there is no reason it can’t be achieved gradually, by first winning greater autonomy, then striving for greater freedom. Independence is not only the most just outcome, it would also re-write an historic wrong. ‘This would not be the first time Tibet was independent’, Lhakpa explains. ‘Before, we lost independence to the Mongols, then we lost independence to the Manchus. But we got it back… We can struggle. And China might get decline.’ It’s difficult to reconcile this farsightedness and restraint with the image of a young radical who, when his planned protest failed to materialise, saw no other alternative to setting himself on fire. Whereas he was once guided by the desire to win independence, these days Lhakpa’s focused on preserving Tibetan language and culture. ‘What is the point of independence’, he asks rhetorically, ‘if the language and culture are lost?’

Lhakpa often complains that the Tibetan community in India is too pre-occupied with earning money; that life is dominated by the desire to get rich and the need to consume more. India, once envisaged as social democratic project with a collectivist approach to organising society, has wholly embraced the promises of neoliberalism with arguably far greater consequences than those seen in the developed world. This is essentially Lhakpa’s critique: Tibetan culture is valuable in and of itself and it’s worth preserving, not so it can be monetised and sold in a vulgerised form to western tourists who think the answers to the worlds ills lie in the esoteric recesses of eastern mysticism, but because without it every Tibetan would be less whole. He’s frustrated that in India, one of the most multilingual countries in the world, Tibetans are losing their language. From his perspective, exiled Tibetans have the opportunity to strengthen their community, free from the repression of the Chinese state, yet Lhakpa is disheartened with what he sees as a lack of awareness and a disregard for the things he considers most important; he rues the fragmentation and erosion of the community, supplanted by what Émile Durkheim called ‘a disorganised dust of individuals’.

*          *          *

 ‘…we surely need theatre that wakes us up, heart and nerves.’

Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Double

‘Perhaps the theatre is not revolutionary in itself; but have no doubts, it is a rehearsal of revolution!’

 Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed

After he was released from hospital, Lhakpa returned to Dharamashala where he was elected to the Central Committee of the TYC and appointed Cultural Secretary.  At the same time, he begun to read about revolutionary and independence struggles in other parts of the world (he was particularly emboldened by the histories of France and India); his study merged with his TYC work and he became focused on thinking about the role art could play in Tibet’s struggle. People didn’t have the time or the will, he says, to attend long, dull political lectures, but that didn’t mean they weren’t politically engaged. There was no reason, Lhakpa thought, these important messages couldn’t be repackaged in a less tedious form. This idea grew into what would eventually become the Tibetan exile community’s first theatre company.

Lhakpa founded Tibet Theatre for the people, unencumbered by the constraints of convention and wanting to push back against the dominant contemporary cultural influences. He has always approached the theatre as a proud autodidact, but he often unwittingly echoes some of the twentieth century’s most radical dramatists. His instinctive sense of the limitations of western theatre and his indifference to classics and masterpieces as inherently conservative bring to mind some of Antonin Artaud’s trenchant essays. Lhakpa believes in theatre as an emancipatory form and his commitment to bring it to the poor and illiterate is the same motivational force that drove Augusto Boal to found the Theatre of the Oppressed. While he’s never had the formal training of these masters, Lhakpa is closer to the people he stages productions for. He is one of them; he understands their struggles and pressures because they’re his too.

Over the years, Lhakpa has moved away from thinking about the future of Tibet and its people through the narrow lens of independence. Separated from their traditional lands, Lhakpa worries the exile community is losing touch with Tibetan culture; Tibet Theatre is an effort to celebrate and preserve it in a world and era in which its intrinsic value is no longer simply assumed. He is relentlessly positive, but occasionally slides into despondency when discussing the declining Tibetan language literacy among exiles. The theatre, therefore, performs exclusively in Tibetan, but it’s becoming more difficult to find players – particularly young people – who speak the language fluently. 

The problem, as Lhakpa sees it, is that children are no longer exposed to the language at a young age; among the exile community, English and Hindi are widely spoken, while Tibetan is often neglected. A few years ago, in addition to the work he was doing with the theatre (or, perhaps, as an extension of it), Lhakpa begun to dub popular foreign language cartoons in Tibetan. ‘These days,’ he explains, ‘parents are really busy going to work and they leave their children with their grandparents and the grandparents keep the children in front of the television. The small child – aged one, two, three years old – is watching Hindi or English cartoons. By the time they get to five or six, their Hindi and English is better than their Tibetan. Even their Tibetan is broken Tibetan.’ Lhakpa’s cartoons are now widely distributed amongst the exile community, increasing children’s exposure to Tibetan during the most important years for language development, without putting any additional burden on working families. As an activist during his university days in Bangalore, Lhakpa was propelled by a sense of urgency; international recognition and the realisation of an independent state were fixed as the ultimate goals. Now, that dream of – to use Benedict Anderson’s formulation – an ‘imagined community’ has been replaced by a desire to build and enrich his actual community.

Lhakpa seeks a kind of liberation in the embrace of traditional cultural practices; he’s dismissive of western theatre, which he says wouldn’t sustain the interest of his audience; instead, he employs tropes from Ache Lhamo, or Tibetan Opera. ‘Laypeople and farmers cannot understand if we show western theatre,’ he says. ‘So, my theatre is my own way [of presenting] our struggle.’ Aesthetically, the sets and costumes – bright, traditional clothing and colourful masks – are often transplanted from Ache Lhamo. Worried that his audiences might be overawed or intimidated by a medium considered highbrow and western, this is his way bringing a level of familiarity to the performance, while also reminding his audience of Tibet’s rich cultural history. 

*          *          *

‘Self-immolation’, writes Woeser, ‘is not just a symbol of despair.’ It’s difficult, however, not to despair at the circumstances that have driven so many to set themselves alight. It’s not easy to muster hope or optimism in the face of such oppression, but Lhakpa seems vitalised by the promise of the Tibetan youth. Perhaps it’s because he has recently become a father for the first time, or maybe he recognises in them the zeal that once propelled him, but Lhakpa is unencumbered by the pessimism one might expect from someone who’s lived life at the margins.

He’s not nostalgic about a past that never existed; instead, he sees the potential in young Tibetans and he wants to foster and encourage them in any way he can. That’s why, he tells me, Tibet Theatre is now more focused on performing in schools; Lhakpa wants to give them the tools to take up the struggle – in one form or another – he’s devoted his life to.

(An edited version of this was published in Arena No. 161, 08 2019 – 09 2019)