Tibetan protesters' suicide by fire

[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/54051462 w=500&h=281]

Tibet's burning protest from Felix Gaedtke on Vimeo.

Source: Asia Calling

This year alone, 30 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest against China’s occupation of their homeland.

22 of them have died.

The latest to join this wave of self-immolations was a 20-year-old Tibetan man who set himself alight in central Tibet last week.

His current status is unknown and it’s difficult to find out more - journalists are prohibited from traveling to Tibet, except on rare occasions closely-controlled by China’s government.

Dharamsala in north India is home to the largest Tibetan community outside their homeland, and to the government-in-exile.

The impact of the protest deaths there is profound, as Asia Calling’s Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran discovered. Listen to the radio piece here: [soundcloud url="http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/54251976" iframe="true" /]

Hundreds of Tibetans have gather at Dharamsala’s football stadium.

They’re holding a candlelit vigil to commemorate those who died by self-immolation.

People from all walks of life are here – young children and workers, students and housewives, political leaders and Buddhist monks.

They’re in mourning.

Tsewang Rigzin, President of the Tibetan Youth Congress, addresses the crowd.

“The Tibetan struggle, over the last 53 years under the Chinese occupation, has been non-violent. And all credit goes to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Having said that, we are seeing all the self-immolations lately. And with these self-immolations, being a non-violent struggle, we the Tibetan people do not have many options left. Self-immolations and hunger strikes are the two last resorts that we have and we don’t have anything else.”

The Tibetan Youth Congress has put up posters of what they call the “burning martyrs” on every street corner.

They show images of the protestors when they were alive, set against a background of fire.

The posters also surround the entrance to the offices of the government in exile.

Tashi, who goes by one name, is a government spokesperson.

“Tibetans inside Tibet have no basic human rights at all. Particularly, the monks and nuns are denied to practise their religion freely. For 24 hours, monasteries and nunneries are being controlled by the Chinese authorities. And the Tibetans are forced to denounce His Holiness Dalai Lama.”

Tashi adds that there’s nothing they can do to stop the immolations.

“You know, this, I think is all in the hands of the Chinese authorities. If they stop this wrong policy, if they really consider the grievances of what are their demands, then I think there’s hope that people may stop it. So, it’s all in the hands of the Chinese authorities, you know.”

Tibet has its own national flag, currency, and a distinct culture and religion.

But China invaded and occupied it in 1949, for both strategic and economic reasons.

In China it’s now a serious offence to say Tibet is a separate country.

International advocacy organisation Human Rights Watch says that China “maintains highly repressive policies” in ethnic Tibetan areas.

Most of the self-immolating protesters held official monastery positions, or had been enrolled as students there.

Kirti monastery is in China’s Sichuan province – it’s an area with strong Tibetan culture. The monastery has been at the epicentre of several protests

Kanyag Tsering, a monk and spokesperson of the monastery, now lives in exile in Dharamsala.

He says by getting involved in politics, Tibet’s monks are playing their traditional role.

“Tibetan people don’t trust the Chinese government. And that is why they always rely on Tibetan monasteries. They place all their hopes in the monasteries. They go to the monasteries for spiritual and political leadership. So the Chinese government wants to control the biggest monasteries, like the Kirti monastery, because that will make it easier for them to control the small monasteries in the area as well as the local people.”

According to its teachings, Buddhism is a non-violent religion that respects all life.

So from a spiritual point of view, doesn’t suicide and violence towards oneself bring bad karma?

“I don’t know what the self-immolators thought before they set themselves on fire. And I don’t know whether they thought about the consequences of self-immolation for themselves. But what I can tell you is that they all left behind a letter or a message before they set themselves on fire. The letters are very obvious – they always hope for a free Tibet and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet. So those are their slogans. So to my mind, they are self-immolating for other people, the six million Tibetan people. So it’s not negative even when you look at it from a Buddhist point of view. Because they are not doing it for selfish reasons, but for a greater good.”

The protestors want to make sure the world knows about the situation in Tibet.

Now tprotests have spread to neighbouring countries, including Nepal and India.

Last March 27-year-old Tibetan exile Jamphel Yeshi set himself on fire in India’s capital New Delhi. Two days later, he died in hospital.

Yeshi’s friend Lobsang Jinpa witnessed the protest.

“There was going to be a demonstration for Tibetan freedom in Delhi that day. Jamphel Yeshi didn’t go with me. I reached the site by myself. I was just drinking some water and when I turned around, I saw that someone was on fire. I rushed to the spot and with one glance I knew it was Jamphel Yeshi. When I reached there almost everything was burnt. I didn’t throw any water on him. I stood there. Others were trying to douse the fire. There was a stench from the burning flesh.”

Like all the other self-immolators, Yeshi left behind a letter demanding a freedom for Tibet.

Copies of this letter are on the walls of place in New Delhi where he lived.

“In Tibetan society we believe that the sacrifice of one person, if it serves many others, is good. I also hope for a free Tibet. Whatever people inside are doing is the right thing. I am happy that they have the courage to sacrifice themselves. With such dedication, Tibet will be free.”