By the editorial board of The Tibetan Political Review
When the Tibetan monk Tapey self-immolated in 2009, and then when, beginning in March 2011, a number of Tibetans began to immolate themselves one by one, this new form of resistance in Tibet, the ultimate act of sacrifice, took everyone by surprise. In the beginning, even within the Tibetan community in exile, some questions were raised as to whether the self-immolations violated Buddhist principles or not. Gradually, commentators began making references to the Lotus Sutra where immolation is spoken of, and to the Jataka Tales of the Buddha wherein the Buddha in a previous life sacrificed himself to feed a starving tiger and her cubs. The strands of responses came together and Tibetans began using the term “offering one’s body as a prayer lamp” for the act of self-immolation.
If Tibetans took some time to understand the phenomenon and react accordingly, the Chinese reaction has certainly faltered. Beijing’s response, as examined through news reports published in the state media Xinhua, has been extremely interesting. Although Beijing seem to have anticipated the self-immolations, when Tibetans actually started self-immolating, they seem to have been caught off-guard, responding in an inconsistent manner.
Beijing off balance?
After Thupten Ngodup, a Tibetan exile, self-immolated himself on April 27, 1998—the first self-immolation of the Tibetan world—Beijing was clearly worried that Tibetans in Tibet would draw inspiration from Thupten Ngodup’s legacy and carry out the same act of resistance. A report published in Xinhua on May 18, 2001, titled “Dalai Clique’s Spies Caught, Plot Crushed” seems intended to preempt such an eventuality, by presenting the official message beforehand. Xinhua claimed that China’s state security departments had recently arrested two Tibetans "Tugyi" and "Cengdan Gyaco", and that the Tibetan government in exile’s Department of Security “trained” Cengdan Gyaco and “directed him to set himself ablaze on the square of the Johkang [sic] Monastery in Lhasa” while Tugyi was to record the self-immolation and send the film to the United Nations.
In the intervening years, there were no known cases of self-immolations but in 2008, the entire Tibetan plateau rose in waves of protest against the government, which were followed by harsh crackdown. We can see 2008 as the catalyzing event for the self-immolations. Phuntsog, the first self-immolation of 2011, immolated himself on March 16, the anniversary of a 2008 protest in Ngaba during which at least 10 Tibetans were shot dead by the authorities. Kayang, who immolated himself on October 7, had a cousin who was shot during a 2008 protest.
Beginning with Tapey, who immolated on February 27, 2009, and the self-immolations of 2011, Beijing’s response as seen through Xinhua has been unusually inconsistent, pointing towards the difficulty of responding to such a highly charged phenomenon. The difficulty was enhanced as, especially towards the beginning, they had no way of knowing if this would be a couple of isolated incidents or would build towards a larger trend.
Beijing’s handling of the first self-immolation of 2011, Phuntsog’s on March 16, was to try to shift the discussion towards “homicide” rather than “self-immolation” and to criminalize the act of sacrifice as much as possible. To this end, on August 30, Xinhua reported that three Tibetans were found guilty of “intentional homicide over another monk’s death by self-immolation”: Tsering Tenzin, Tenchum and Phuntsog’s uncle Drongdu were sentenced to 13, 10 and 11 years in prison respectively. But Xinhua glossed over the 6 self-immolations following Phuntsog’s, (Tsewang Norbu on August 15, Lobsang Kunchok and Lobsang Kelsang on September 26, Kelsang Wangchuk on October 3, and Choepel and Kayang on October 7) mentioning only that police and local government were investigating these incidents.
However, on October 18, a day after Tenzin Wangmo, the first woman, self-immolated and three days after the immolation of Norbu Damdrul, Xinhua reported that religious affairs officials said the self-immolations seem to be instigated by the exile Tibetan community. In fact, Song Tendargye, the head of Ngaba’s religious affairs bureau told Xinhua that Kirti Rinpoche (Abbot of Kirti Monastery who fled into exile in the 60s) and his team, under the instruction of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, were tasked to plot destabilizing acts in Ngaba where Kirti Monastery is based.
Various government-employed Chinese Tibetology experts then began to comment on the self-immolations. On November 5, Xinhua printed an article by the writer Yi Duo titled “Self-burnings Drama Shows Dalai Lama’s Desperation” in which the writer actually claimed that the Tibetan government in exile “call[ed] for more people to donate their lives for the independence of Tibet.” On November 24, Xinhua published an article by Hua Zi, a researcher at the China Tibetology Publishing House, in which she called self-immolation an “extreme act of violence and terrorism”, and said that Kirti Rinpoche was plotting the incidents to gain clout in the exile administration. Earlier that month on November 3, we saw the self-immolation of nun Palden Choetso, which was caught on video. The footage, smuggled out of Tibet, captured the world’s attention. Both of these pieces were likely strategic efforts at damage control within the domestic audience, both Tibetan and Chinese.
The efforts at damage control went beyond publishing articles blaming His Holiness and the Tibetans in exile. There were extreme efforts at discrediting and dismissing some of the self-immolators.
On December 1, Tenzin Phuntsog self-immolated in Chamdo. The next day, Xinhua reported that Phuntsog, accused of cutting trees illegally, had brandished a knife and tried to attack someone at a meeting, and that officials believed that his “suicide attempt was believed to be connected with the incident”. On January 6, Tsultrim and Tennyi, two young men in their 20s, self-immolated together. Xinhua reported the following day that according to the investigation, “they were involved in thefts, with the deceased man being a suspect at large in the case of the Kirti Monastery Buddha statue burglary.” Lama Sobha, also called Sonam Wangyal, immolated on January 8. Xinhua reported on January 9 that investigations revealed Lama Sobha, “a self-claimed living Buddha” had “committed suicide because his secret love affair” with a married woman was exposed.
Gang Zheng, another Tibetologist, from the Sichuan Tibetology Research Center, said in Xinhua on January 7: “The several self-immolation cases recently were committed by people who previously had got punished for their wrongdoings such as whoring, gambling and burglary, or deep in debt because of gambling.”
What is the official Chinese response to the self-immolations going to be? That they were instigated by His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Kirti Rinpoche and the Tibetans in exile, or that these are deviant Tibetans who have done some wrong and then self-immolated once they were exposed? At any rate, glossing over the incidents is no longer an option.
And why were these particular cases targeted for character assassination? In at least two of the cases, we can perhaps guess why. Tenzin Phuntsog’s self-immolation was the first one that took place inside the Tibet Autonomous Region; the previous ones were all in Tibetan areas outside. The government must worry that his act would inspire similar action in other areas inside the TAR. It is clear the government is very concerned about the significance of the self-immolations, particularly those of Phuntsog’s and Lama Sobha’s, for the greater Tibetan population under their control and their potential consequences.
As for Lama Sobha, he left behind an audio message, which has now circulated widely. In their various responses to the self-immolations, the Chinese government has not yet addressed Lama Sobha’s statement, in the only testament left behind by a Tibetan who has self-immolated.
First Lama Sobha confirmed Beijing’s suspicion that Tibetans would draw inspiration from Thupten Ngodup: “I am grateful to Pawo Thupten Ngodup and all other Tibetan heroes, who have sacrificed their lives for Tibet and for the reunification of the Tibetan people”. Lama Sobha echoed other self-immolators’ calls for the return of His Holiness (although he makes a distinction we should pay attention to), "I pray that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and remain as Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader" (emphasis added). And then Lama Sobha gave his reason for giving his life in the ultimate act of resistance. He said, “I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness”.