Why Are Tibetan Monks Setting Themselves on Fire?

The rising practice of self-immolation follows severe government restrictions, an ebbing Tibetan identity, and reports of torture

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A woman throws a white scarf over Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso as she burns on the street in Daofu, or Tawu in Tibetan, in this still image taken from video / Reuters

"Whenever they thought I was not telling the truth, the interrogator displayed a handcuff, an electric baton, and a handgun on the desk," Namgyal, a 37-year-old Tibetan monk, recalled to human rights workers. "[They] asked me: 'Which would you like to choose? Confession or tools?'" Namgyal, arrested in March of 2008 and accused of attempting to organize an anti-Chinese protest, was held for over a year without official charge.

During that time, he was tortured and beaten. At one point, he said, "I felt my body was split into pieces. The cuff went into my flesh. I felt I was going to die. I asked them to kill me." Then, he said, "They put me back on the floor. One of them pulled a handgun from a bag and said I should not close my eyes or I would reincarnate as a demon after I was shot dead. He pressed the gun onto my forehead and the gun clicked. Still I did not say anything."

Namgyal's treatment, not atypical for suspected Tibetan dissidents, is part of China's response to the growing attention activists there have received in the past several years, especially after a campaign of self-immolations among the area's monastics. As international media begins to cover the burnings -- so far, Time reports 8 cases this year alone and the Washington Post says there have been 15 since March -- the antecedents to this horrifying trend offer insight into a question that seems difficult to avoid: why would anyone choose to drink gasoline and then light him or herself on fire?

The high mountain plateau known as Tibet has been militarily occupied by China since 1951. The Chinese government regards Tibet as part of China, citing former Mongol rule of the area, and it exiled the Dalai Lama, Tibet's former ruler, in 1959.  But many Tibetans argue that Tibet has always been an independent country. These competing claims for legitimate governance can at times escalate into a sort of culture war, playing out between the high mountains.

While China has had a presence in the region for the past 60 years, its codification of restrictions against traditional Tibetan practices are relatively new. Since a wave of demonstrations embarrassed the Chinese leadership around the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, when hundreds of Tibetans protested Chinese rule, prefecture-level regulations have been rolled out in breath-taking detail. While many of these regulations appear harmless or even positive, in aggregate they make for something darker. New "social security measures," for example, ostensibly provide small cash stipends to monks as an old age benefit. But the pay-outs are contingent on meeting a state-regulated standard of patriotism. As part of this new "good behavior" allowance, the Chinese government has informed Tibet's monks they will have no need to perform the religious services they used to be paid for. The price of being "supported" by the state, in this instance, is the effective prohibition of their religion.

For those with grievances against the state, China has a tradition of finding justice in the streets. In imperial times, people would travel to centers of power and petition officials directly, sometimes by standing in the roads, banging drums and kneeling before mandarins' carriages to call attention to their problem in person. Nowadays, petitioning is still practiced, in a way. Many governmental offices still have "Letters and Visits" divisions, where citizens can report their complaints, which are supposed to be passed on to the appropriate governmental division. But since the cases often get handed back to the local governments that created the trouble in the first place, it's perhaps not surprising that a recent survey reported only 2 percent of visitors had their issue resolved.  Within this cultural context, Tibet's self-immolations could be considered an extension -- albeit an extreme one -- of a practice dating back hundreds of years.

Still, some outsiders watching Tibet say that the level of unrest there now is new, and disturbing. Steven Marshall, a Senior Advisor for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, spent more than two decades researching human rights violations in Tibet. Marshall says that other new laws -- which prohibit monks from traveling anywhere without explicit permission from the governments at both ends, and allow arrests for things as small as "reactionary" cell phone ring-tones -- are likely to spark more protests. He believes this year's immolations could be just the beginning of a larger, accumulating outrage.

The Democracy ReportMarshall says that the self-immolaters are remarkably consistent in their call for independence. "Tibetan has two words for freedom," Marshall says. "One refers to political independence for a country, and the other means individual freedom, as in 'civil rights' in English." He says the demonstrators have used both words since the 2008 protests. "They are doing this because they've reached the end of their rope. They've tried everything else. Hundreds of monks are in prison and jails, or were picked up [by the police] and never heard from again."

Even non-monastic Tibetans are struggling with Chinese regulations. While a majority of the population has been nomadic for generations, the Chinese government has started to forcibly settle the herders into compact, fixed communities, effectively ending their traditional herding lifestyle. Over a million people have been settled onto these reservation-like plots over the last five years. For Tibetans, it's a loss of more than just a way of life -- these nomadic groups are perceived to represent the essence of what it meant to be Tibetan. It's the end of the frontier, and in many ways, the sudden loss of a cultural trope every bit as central to Tibetan identity as were, for Americans, the idealized cowboys of the old west.

The Chinese government says these re-settlements make it easier to provide better services like education and health care. Life on the grasslands can be tough, and some Tibetans probably do desire an alternative, easier life, which had not before been possible. In these communities, Tibetans are given Chinese language lessons, and for a period of time after moving, a small living stipend.

But that's not always enough. "People are having a tough time. They gave up everything they have, but they haven't gained a way of life, a way of livelihood," says Steve Marshall.

This weekend, after a monk identified as Nyage Sonamdrugyu set himself on fire, around 500 angry protesters forced police to relinquish his body, which they then carried through the streets of Gyumai, a town in Tibet. China's state-run Xinhua News Agency said that an investigation found Nyage burned himself after his "secret love affair with a local woman was discovered by the woman's husband."

Radio Free Asia said security in the area has been tightened.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Marshall told me before this latest series of self-immolations. If self-immolation were to become a larger trend, it could be very significant to Chinese internal dynamics. But to the 15 monks who were willing to burn in protest, the significance of their actions, and all they were willing to give up to be heard, was already plain.