Why Violence in Tibet Is Getting Worse

Activists are burning themselves alive, but the Chinese government seems unable to change policies.

Tibet Feb27 p.jpg

Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso burns on the street in Daofu, or Tawu in Tibetan, in this still image taken from video / Reuters

Earlier this week a Tibetan monk became at least the 22nd person in the past year to commit self-immolation in protest at the Chinese government's rule in Tibet. Robert Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, says this is a new type of political protest for Tibetans, one that looks like it may become an ongoing form of dissent if the Chinese government does not change some of its policies in the region.

Asia Blog spoke to Barnett by telephone.

Why are monks and nuns deciding to use this particular form of protest against the Chinese government?

The reasons why they have chosen this method of protest are not exactly clear. People inside Tibet, especially in rural areas, are sometimes able to get radio news in Tibetan from outside sources such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, but probably know little if anything about the Tunisian self-immolation last year, let alone the Vietnamese self-immolations 50 years ago. But they would have heard about the demonstrations that lead to the Arab Spring, and this might have encouraged people in a general way to see popular protest as a way to bring about change.

But they may be choosing this method of protest because in the previous cycle of unrest in Tibet in 2008, when there were about 150 street demonstrations by very large groups, about 20 of those incidents spiraled down into chaos and violence. The violence had allowed the Chinese government to avoid addressing the underlying issues and complaints of the protestors, and self-immolation may be seen as a way to avoid the downside of traditional large-scale street protests: it sends a message to the government in a way that the protestors hope will not be easy to brush aside because it does not do damage to other people or to property, and does not involve unrest.

The protests call in general for "freedom" and for the Dalai Lama to be allowed to return to Tibet. They seem to have been triggered by a dramatic turn in policy in 1994, when the Chinese state decided to focus above all on attacking the Dalai Lama by forcing monks and nuns to denounce him and greatly increasing regulations concerning monasteries and religion. This policy was first implemented in the Tibet Autonomous Region, which is the western half of the Tibetan plateau around Lhasa, but in the last 10 years it has been gradually imposed, monastery by monastery, across the eastern half of the plateau, where most Tibetans live and where the current protests are taking place. It includes re-education programs in the monasteries, bans on worship of the Dalai Lama, downgrading of the role of Tibetan language in schools, encouragement of migration into Tibetan areas, and other restrictions. No-one knows why they decided to extend this policy to the eastern Tibetan areas, since until then they had been quite relaxed and peaceful since the late 1970s.

Is there any tradition to this particular kind of protest in Buddhist culture?

The Chinese press has been arguing that these protests violate Buddhist principles and rules, but in fact they resonate strongly with Buddhist tradition. Suicide is shunned in Buddhism if carried out for personal reasons, but self-sacrifice for a noble cause is highly regarded. There are many stories about the Buddha doing this in former lives, most famously one in which he sacrifices himself by giving his body to a dying tigress so she can feed her cubs. So an act that is done for the good of the community is considered noble, and especially so if it is done by a member of the clergy.

It is because these acts have been done by monks, nuns or former monks, that it has been so hard for the Chinese government to discredit the protestors -- it would be very different if lay people had been involved. The government had almost total success in discrediting five Chinese people, said by the government to be adherents of the Falun Gong sect, who staged a mass self-immolation in Beijing in 2001: the event was presented as proof that these people had been brainwashed and manipulated by the Falun Gong. But despite some tentative attempts by the Chinese press to do this with the Tibetan monks and nuns, these efforts have failed, largely because they are so widely respected within the Tibetan community.

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Alex Ortolani is Asia Society’s Senior Media and Content Officer.

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