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A Small but Stunning Shift in the Struggle for Tibet

This month marks the 53rd anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule. It was March of 1959 when the Chinese took control of Lhasa. Soon after, the Dalai Lama fled to India. The China the world knew then is today unrecognizable in countless ways. The future of Tibet, however, remains unresolved.

In researching the current situation in Tibet, I paused when considering the following: Tibetan women have a long history of peaceful resistance. On March 12, 1959, in the middle of the Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule, Tibetan women organized a nonviolent protest in front of the Dalai Lama’s home in Lhasa. It lasted for weeks. An estimated five to fifteen thousand women came together to appeal for support against Chinese occupation. Afterwards many were imprisoned, tortured, or executed, including a woman by the name of Pamo Kusang.

I had not heard her name before. I was intrigued to learn that she was reportedly married to a low-level Tibetan official and is cited as the leader of the ’59 demonstrations by Tibetan women. According to the Tibet Justice Center, Pamo Kusang and others were “brutally tortured and mercilessly interrogated” while incarcerated for years. They remained defiant. In 1970, Pamo Kusang organized a protest from behind prison walls. A group of women marched together on prison grounds and chanted anti-Chinese slogans. Kusang was seized by guards and transferred to a notorious prison. Under interrogation there, she repeatedly refused to name names, insisting that she alone was responsible for organizing every protest in which she participated. For her defiance, she was among a group of women sentenced to public execution:

The crowd could hardly recognize them for they had suffered beyond imagination from many years of imprisonment. Pamo Kusang herself was crippled and had lost her hearing in one ear as well as her hair which had probably been pulled out by the roots. They were lined up in front of a pit and shot by firing squad in the back.

Such violence did not change the approach of Tibetan women in the decades to follow. Female Tibetan protests have, by and large, remained peaceful incidents. So much so, some experts observe, that only female gatherings sincerely honor the inherent beliefs of the Tibetan people’s commitment to peaceful protest. Now that is changing.

Tibetan women are setting themselves ablaze in protest of Chinese rule in small but increasing numbers, a radical shift from decades of nonviolence.

This month alone, four Tibetans have killed themselves by self-immolation, according to Radio Free Asia and other Tibetan watchdog agencies. Two were women. On March 4th, Richen, a widowed mother of at least three children (Free Tibet and the Tibetan Women’s Organization put that number at four) died after setting herself ablaze in front of a police surveillance station at the main gate of the Kirti monastery in eastern Tibet. The day before, a young student (reports vary in citing her age as either 19 or 20) identified as Tsering Kyi self-immolated in front of a vegetable market in Tro Kho Menma Shang village in Machu. These two troubling incidents are the first reports of Tibetan laywomen taking part in the recent spate of self-immolations.

In October 2011, for the very first time in Tibet’s history, a female nun died after setting herself on fire. In November, the second did so; in February of this year, a third. Since March 2011, at least 27 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in protest of Chinese rule; 19 have died. Five out of five females to take part have died from their actions.  

Tibet remains shut off; very few journalists have been able to get past the many checkpoints sequestering the story from the world. Almost no pictures and even fewer eyewitness accounts are making it to the international media.

In Beijing this month, the country’s leaders gathered under one roof in the Great Hall of the People for the annual National People’s Congress. One by one, China’s political leaders took to the stage to announce what the future will hold. A lower GDP. A lot more military spending. An effort to control inflation. Promises to fix the housing market. All engineered to maintain stability and calm at any cost in the face of a looming transition of power at the very highest levels. As the camera scans the audience, not a single member of the nearly 3,000-strong delegation leans to his or her neighbor to whisper, chat, or comment. Reportedly, talking is not actually allowed—an illustrative rule in light of the struggle in Tibet.

During the Congress, Wu Zegang, head of the Tibetan region in Sichuan Province where many of the self immolations are taking place, said that most of the people carrying out acts of self-immolation were shouting out separatist slogans such as “‘Independence for Tibet’ and others that are aimed at dividing the nation.”

Save Tibet reports that Rinchen, the widowed mother, shouted, “We need freedom!” before fatally setting herself ablaze. Was her aim to divide the nation, as Wu Zegang suggests? We can’t know. But in that moment, it was enough to convince her to abandon her children.

And so I pause when I consider this small but significant change, happening almost silently miles away from where each and every one of China’s leaders came together. When I read the words “for the first time” in the context of female self-immolations, I wonder, will that make people stop and take notice? Was that potential a motivating factor? Was it despair? Was it hopelessness? Did someone ask herself, “What can we possibly do now, that we haven’t done before?”

And when she found an answer, did she worry that decades of nonviolent protest would be discounted? Or did she simply believe there was no other choice? Whatever the answer, perhaps the most troubling question is whether it will make any difference. 

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