By the Editorial Board of The Tibetan Political Review
In a strange coincidence, February 14 saw articles on both Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan prime minister in exile, and Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, making statements on the self-immolation crisis in Tibet. We take a close look at how the words chosen by both prime ministers reveal insights into their approaches on the issue.
The Tibetan Prime Minister
According to AP’s report of its interview, the Tibetan prime minister spoke about how China has sealed off Tibet. Sangay also described his view of why the self-immolations are taking place:
“You can’t have hunger strikes, you can’t have demonstrations, you can’t write petitions [in Tibet]. Given such repressive policies and actions, Tibetans are pushed to the brink of desperation. They are thinking that perhaps this form of action will bring some attention to the grievances of the Tibetan people.”
Essentially, Sangay explains the self-immolations as acts of “desperation” motivated by seeking global “attention”. It is wonderful that Sangay’s interview was carried by AP, bringing prominent coverage to this issue of the sort that the previous Tibetan exiled prime minister probably would not have received. At the same time, for two reasons, his interview contained statements which have implications that are unfortunate or potentially unhelpful.
First, it is detrimental to portray such utterly selfless acts of resistance as merely acts of “desperation”.** Desperation necessarily comes from despair. While it would be arrogant for anyone to presume to know what was in the minds of these courageous individuals, we do not hear desperation when listening to Lama Sopa’s recorded last words, a hauntingly powerful call for Tibetan nationhood. We do not see desperation when Ani Palden Choetso calmly raised her hands in prayer as she was engulfed in flames.
In our view, therefore, the word “desperation” diminishes the deep sacrifice and meaning of these self-immolations. It falsely turns a powerful act of Tibetan resistance into a sign of Tibetan despair and helplessness. This goes to the question of whether Tibetans in Tibet are passive victims, or agents with the power to change their own destiny. Certainly the Central Tibetan Administration must take care to not be seen as encouraging more self-immolations. But just as certainly, it owes it to courageous Tibetans to respect rather than diminish their sacrifice.
Second, it seems simplistic to describe the self-immolations as motivated by seeking global “attention”. Again, we do not presume to know the minds of those brave individuals. However, based partly on our own direct and indirect contacts in Tibet, many Tibetans in Tibet have a sophisticated understanding that the “free world” will not ride to Tibet’s rescue. In Tibet there are no cries of “U.N.O. we want justice”.
Under this more expansive view, the self-immolations may bring outside attention, but that is secondary. Primarily, the self-immolations unify the Tibetan people, including those who were lulled into a false sense that the political status quo might be acceptable. The self-immolations also drive home to the Chinese regime that the Tibetan people will not give in, and force the Chinese people to confront the reality that the Tibetan people are not Chinese, and never will be. If these are the goals, then there is a powerful strategy at work.
These apparent goals are based on a more complete understanding of true front lines of the Tibet-China struggle. These goals are also separate from raising global “attention”, which is important but completely inadequate to solve the core issue of Tibet.
The Chinese Prime Minister
Wen’s statement on the self-immolation crisis is mainly important because it is the highest-level Chinese statement on the issue to date. He mostly stuck to the standard boilerplate, with statements like "We respect and protect Tibet's ecological environment and traditional culture, respect and protect religious freedom in Tibet," and that Tibet is an "inseparable part" of China which the government has made great efforts at developing.
Interestingly, however, Wen also stated that "Our Tibetan countrymen are an important part of China's family of ethnic groups. They are our brothers." This demands the question: Why did Wen feel it was necessary to make this defensive statement?
Note that Tibetans are “they”, in contrast to “our” which presumably refers to the Chinese people. Even if, in Wen’s view, Tibetans “belong” to China, he does not portray them as really Chinese. (See the discussion above regarding the self-immolations strategically driving this point home.)
Wen also purposely tries to limit the discussion to the immolation of “a small number of monks”, to reduce the measure of the crisis. Setting aside his omission of nuns, former monks and former nuns who were part of the lay community, Wen also notably ignores the demonstrations in Yushul, Nangchen, Drango, and elsewhere, where hundreds if not thousands of lay Tibetans took to the streets in resistance.
Wen Jiabao’s attempt to minimize the self-immolation crisis in Tibet is unsurprising. His attempt to cover up the extent of the resistance is to be expected, and not much more needs to be said on this.
As for Lobsang Sangay’s statement, the prime minister should be acknowledged for being far more active in public diplomacy than his predecessor.
However, we are disappointed that the prime minister raised only the goal of international “attention”, ignoring the far more significant strategic developments in strengthening Tibetan unity and forcing a shift in Chinese perceptions. In this sense, the Tibetan people in Tibet are taking the lead, which we hope the Central Tibetan Administration will eventually follow for the good of the entire Tibetan movement.
Because of these significant strategic developments, we believe that the self-immolations should be portrayed, not as acts of helpless despair, but as courageous acts of active resistance.
** For a more detailed look at the word "desperation", see "Beacons of Resistance, not Desperate Acts" by Christophe Besuchet.
This article originally included a reference to a "February 3 self-immolation of three lay herders in Serthar". New information suggests that reporting of this event was incorrect, underscoring yet again the importance of opening Tibet to independent journalists and diplomats.