Self-Immolations In Tibet: Wider Implications – Analysis


By Bhavna Singh

The series of self-immolations amongst Tibetans during last few months have been aimed at exposing the severe religious subjugation or ‘cultural genocide’ as claimed by Tibetans and protest the denial of opportunity to the Dalai Lama to visit his homeland. There have been eleven such cases beginning March this year, originally designed to mark the third anniversary of Tibetan riots in 2008. Latest in the stream of immolations are a nun who torched herself to death protesting the extreme religious and human rights suppression and China’s rule over Tibet and Dawa Tsering, a monk from Kardze monastery in Sichuan who attempted the same on 25 October 2011 and another nun who set herself on fire in Garze prefecture on 4 November 2011.

Predictably, the central authorities have resorted to instant physical blockade, severing of telephone lines, interdiction of internet cafes and detentions of related monks to the recent incidents. They have also demanded an immediate handover of the charred bodies in an attempt to rein in the impending political and security threats from international ‘publicization’ of the issue. Not only have the provinces of Tibet and Sichuan become physically inaccessible to foreign journalists and diplomats, but even queries regarding the incidents have met with a customary denial of both responsibility and information from the authorities.

The response is far from surprising given China’s notorious behaviour on handling internal strife. Rather what is new is that the Tibetans are now willing to relinquish their age-old Buddhist precepts on sanctity of life and non-violence and are resorting to extreme measures to put forth their grievances and agendas. And not so shockingly, Tibet’s neighbouring province of Sichuan has become the epicenter for these activities as the articulation of grievances is more palpable from this region instead of Lhasa or any other city within the Tibet Autonomous region. This province has been experiencing repression of Buddhist monks given their objection to forcible re-education classes organized by the Chinese Ministry of Public Security along with the Kirti monastery in the Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous prefecture. Forced resettlement is also a major issue for Tibetans.

The reasons behind these acts are clear: first, there is a severe psychological despair amongst Tibetans culminating from their inability to garner effective international support for their cause. Second, though the relinquishing of political power to a new Kalon Tripa (Prime Minister) for the Tibetan Government-in-exile ensures continuity of the Tibetan struggle for independence, the spiritual vacuum continues. The 76 year-old Dalai Lama whose advocacy of rights for Tibetans earned him the indignation of the Chinese state is still venerated as the religious head by the Tibetan people and it is a common aspiration among them that he is allowed to set his foot on his birth-land at least once during his life time.

Third, since the Tibetan Autonomous Region is highly guarded in terms of dissemination of information, it is only natural that the voices are springing from alternative regions. It might even serve their cause of the Greater Tibet vision which espouses all ethnic Tibetans from the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan as a single community. The more these neighbouring regions become politically active the more easily they will be integrated towards the common cause. More significantly, the increase in violent incidences also reflects the growing impatience among younger generation of Tibetans who are running short of options when pitted against an overbearing state and are endorsing strategies way beyond the conventional path delineated by the Dalai Lama to prevent loss of international spectators and empathy.

As for the reactions, the Chinese government has again attributed these incidents to the Dalai Lama by holding him accountable for not preventing such ‘immoral’ acts and calibrating violent attempts against the state. Jiang Yu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, went as far as calling these incidents as ‘terrorism in disguise.’ Meanwhile, the incidents have generated a mixed response even within the Tibetan community. On the one hand, the Dalai Lama has denounced the resort to violent measures for the sake of Tibetan Buddhism and on the other hand, there has been mixed reporting on reactions from the Prime Minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, while a huge proportion of exiled members venerating these acts as commendable.

This lack of unanimity within Tibetans on the future trajectory of the Tibetan struggle will prove detrimental in the long run. Use of unruly measures even as a ‘pressure tactic’ to demand the return of the Dalai Lama will provide legitimacy to the Chinese state to crackdown heavily on them which so far it has not enjoyed. And though the despondency could have been capitalized by means of growing international intervention on the Tibet issue, these self-destructive acts will also thwart their attempts by allowing China to use an ‘internal security threat’ card to its advantage. Some caution is prudent here; dialogue on Tibet will serve the two sides better rather than reaching a no-win situation.

Bhavna Singh
Research Officer, CRP
email: [email protected]


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

One thought on “Self-Immolations In Tibet: Wider Implications – Analysis

  • December 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    What a tragedy to feel so drawn apart from one’s home and origins, so unsupported by the world to burn oneself in order to escape the pain, or draw attention to the cause. It is my sincerest belief that his holiness will return to his home and complete his cycle of life as intended. I do not know what I can do to help other than continue to pray for peace, understanding, communication, inspiration, hope, compassion, empathy and joy for all. Namaste.


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