Self-Immolations in Tibet

On Saturday, a former monk set himself on fire to protest Chinese rule of Tibet. Norbu Dathul shouted “Tibet needs freedom!” and “His Holiness the Dalai Lama must return!” then tried to take his life. Police put out the flames, and the condition of the 19-year-old is not known, according to London-based Free Tibet, an advocacy group.

It was the eighth self-immolation since March. Most of the incidents, like this one, have occurred around the Kirti Monastery, which is in the part of Sichuan province that the Chinese call Aba and the Tibetans Ngaba. The monastery has been the subject of a massive security crackdown this year with a forced exodus of hundreds of monks and another hated “patriotic re-education program.” According to monks, there have been unpublicized suicides there.

The wave of self-immolations come amid reports that Tibetans have recently stepped up acts of defiance, often publicly displaying images of the Dalai Lama, which are prohibited. Beijing’s response in the last several years has been to seal off Tibetan areas and increase coercion there, but heightened repression has failed to end resistance to Chinese rule.

Beijing speaks of Tibet as if it has always been part of China, but the Chinese narrative is not accurate. The Tibetans and Chinese have a complicated history, but the situation today is clear. Tibet, which was once free, has been conquered and is now part of the People’s Republic. 

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, is seeking autonomy for his people, but Beijing’s leaders have spurned him, at turns trying to assimilate the Tibetans, seducing them with economic development, overrunning them with migration of Han settlers, and intimidating them with brute force. Nothing, however, has worked to create loyalty.

Instead, the Tibetans have both passively resisted and resorted to violence. Tibetan identity now appears stronger than it has been in recent memory, and Beijing’s leaders feel especially insecure. As a result, they have employed the harshest means imaginable and have become intransigent. So today Tibetans are trying to take their own lives in desperate acts.

In Dharamsala, the Indian hill town that hosts the Tibetan government-in-exile, there are prayer vigils and peaceful demonstrations every time a Tibetan sets himself on fire. The exiles hang banners with images of those who have tried to take their own lives, but few outside that community notice. The Chinese authorities work hard to make sure the horrible sacrifices are in vain.

Yet someday they will not be. Buddhist monks burned themselves and started a chain of events that brought down the Diem government in South Vietnam in the 1960s. No one should be surprised, therefore, if the Tibetan self-immolations also move the international community to act on their behalf. One day, Tibet will be free.

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