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On the Questions of Why and to What End

Among the controversies surrounding the wave of self-immolations inside Tibet that began in February 2009 are debates over the motives of those committing these acts and their inherent value (or lack thereof). These debates are going on both within and without the People’s Republic of China, at times as parallel, non-intersecting discussions. The first interpretations from the Tibetan exile community ascribed the self-immolations to hopelessness and suicidal despair, an interpretation that can be best understood within the structural dependency built into exile life, which often encourages pathos-based appeals to the consciences of benefactors. But this tack was largely brought to a screeching halt by one essay, written by the long-time observer of Tibetan affairs, Christophe Besuchet. Drawing on what was known about and said by those who committed self-immolation, he pointed out that there was no evidence of depression and despair; that on the contrary, available personal information on those committing self-immolation, though certainly not complete, indicated that the actions were undertaken as acts of strong-willed political defiance and resistance.

If exiles interpreted the acts according to their own circumstances so too did several liberal Chinese writing in cyberspace. There the assumption was that the Tibetans who committed self-immolation were uselessly trying to awaken the consciences of those in authority to the depths of misery inside Tibet. One example is this comment: “Any self-immolation can only illustrate the self-immolator’s clinging to a fantasy of the authorities’ ultimate goodwill.” This was also reflected in some of the early commentary from outside Tibet which held that these actions wasted human lives for nothing; that they were, moreover, fundamentally un-Buddhist. On that point one Tibetan exile spokesperson asserted his agreement with a Chinese commentator in the People’s Daily who had denounced the self-immolators as un-Buddhist. This sentiment in turn lead some to advocate that the Dalai Lama call for a halt to such actions. This, of course, was something that would have put him in an awkward position. Were he to call for such a halt to no effect, it might have implications for his unofficial authority. Were he effective he would provide fodder for Chinese claims that he pulls the strings of protest in Tibet. Another well-respected lama, the Karma-pa, did in November 2011 publicly call for an end to self-immolations, but they continued. He has not reiterated that appeal. After resisting appeals that she call for an end to self-immolation, stating that such calls would not alleviate the causes of self-immolation, the influential writer Tsering Woeser, while continuing to maintain respect for those who had committed such actions, also called for a halt to further acts after a widowed mother committed self-immolation on 4 March 2012 leaving behind four orphaned children. Nevertheless, acts of self-immolations have not stopped.

The Chinese writer Wang Lixiong, who has sought to articulate a way for Tibetan protests to move beyond self-immolation, has stated that the self-immolations have indeed been effective: they have galvanized Tibetan sentiments and greatly strengthened the Tibetan sense of unity in the face of rule by China. This reflects a far clearer understanding of the situation than ideas of Tibetan self-immolation as a futile attempt to move bureaucratic hearts in China or as an act of hopeless despair, rooted as they are, in their advocates’ parochial projections. (Of course, it should go without saying that, contrary to what is believed in some circles, Tibet and the Tibet issue do not occupy the thoughts of most people in China.) In the face of wide, positive sympathy and support in Tibet for those who have committed self-immolation, the “un-Buddhist” critique has not gained traction. One anonymous Tibetan blog comment is perhaps more typical of the way self-immolation has come to be viewed inside Tibet; certainly more typical than the projections of other observers might lead one to believe: “Might I ask if we, who scream when we scrape our hands even slightly, would have the guts to sacrifice our lives for the cause of freedom?… Yes, when I think of the heroes and heroines who have committed self-immolation I am ashamed of my inherent weakness, cowardice and uselessness.”

Both Wang Lixiong and Tsering Woeser have called for Tibetans to move beyond self-immolation as a tactic. At the same time, neither has denigrated those who have committed such acts, let alone characterized them as acting contrary to Buddhist principles. But in a milieu effectively bereft of civil-society options for organizing peaceful protest and dissent it has been difficult to conceive of a viable alternate tactic. Self-immolation is a solitary, individual act of protest that can be undertaken in an instant with little chance for the authorities to prevent it, or to shut out the protester’s message. An end to the current wave of self-immolations will likely require an alternative tactic capable of comparable effect or the ceding of adequate space for dissent on the part of the authorities.

1 April 2012

Related Links

For assertions that self-immolation goes against Buddhist tenets or is a waste of life see:

For Wang Lixiong’s article see:

For Christophe Besuchet’s article see:

For an assertion that self-immolation in Tibet is a futile attempt to awaken official consciences see: (Scroll down to the author's comment after the post.)

For the comments on sacrifice and cowardice see:

For Tsering Woeser’s appeal see:

Elliot Sperling, Department of Central Eurasian Studies, Indiana University