Hope Fades as Self-Immolations Rise in Tibet

From the outside it would appear that China pulled off a seamless transition of power. On November 15th China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, strode confidently out onto the world stage. In his first public remarks as the anointed head of China’s Communist Party, he denounced corruption and vowed to work for the people. Behind him the six new members of the Standing Committee, the governing body that essentially rules the country, stood at attention wearing dark suits and dull, thin smiles.

But on the inside, and far off the front pages, turmoil is intensifying in Tibet. Self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule now constitute, as Edward Wong wrote in the New York Times, “one of the largest such phenomena anywhere in the world in recent memory.” 

The situation in Tibet is not the only example of potential chaos under the calm. Corruption, scandal, territorial disputes with its neighbors, and a slowing economy are all issues that will occupy the new government’s working hours. But Tibet stands apart. It is the thorn in China’s side that will not go away despite the government’s vast and violent attempt to make it so.

Protesters in Tibet have not chosen to wait and see whether China’s new leader will adapt even a sliver of change to China’s harsh policy of control. Before Xi Jinping took over, there were murmurings of hope. Xi’s father was the former vice premier Xi Zhongxun. He is said to have had a close bond with the Dalai Lama. Reuters described the elder Xi as “liberal minded” and the Dalai Lama recalled him as “comparatively more open-minded” than other party leaders. Xi is known to have respected his father a great deal. Would he soften the policy in Tibet at all? Close China watchers dismissed that idea; Xi has party elders to keep happy, and they grant power to officials who prove they’ll keep the status quo. Altering the country’s policy on Tibet would not likely be welcomed.

Evidence would suggest Tibetans also dismissed any hope for change. This month alone, reports say 21 Tibetans committed acts of self-immolation. That brings the total number of Tibetans to die from self-immolation since the recent spate of protests began to 86, according to locally sourced reporting by the nonprofit organizations Free Tibet and Radio Free Asia.

“We are now receiving reports of self-immolation protests on a now almost daily basis,” says the director of Free Tibet, Stephanie Brigden.

Less than a year ago I noted in this blog that for the first time in Tibetan history women had joined the list of those to self-immolate. That is no longer unique. Nor are instances of lay people taking such action. Since November 20th there have been reports of at least seven acts of self-immolation, mostly taking place in Eastern Tibet. The group includes at least two students and two fathers. Any more detail is hard to come by. Independent reporting continues to be nearly impossible; the Chinese government forbids foreign journalists from entering Tibet.

“There is a communication problem as phone lines are cut or not working and no response is coming from inside Tibet,” Lobsang Tsultrim, a former Ngaba resident now living in India, told Radio Free Asia.

There are other headlines in the world today—the Middle East, the looming fiscal cliff, sex scandals involving government officials in both the US and China, and more. We can seethese stories 24 hours a day, should we choose to watch. But because we cannot see the story in Tibet, it bears attention more than ever. 

“We may not have access to the same Technicolor details about the situation inside Tibet as we do about other crises in the world, but that does not make this crisis any less vivid for the Tibetans who are living it,” said Brigden.


Photo Credit: Hassam Rabaj

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