Getting perspective on the Tibetan immolation phenomenon

Photos of Tibetan self-immolators on display at a pro-Tibet rally in New Delhi on Monday, Human Rights Day

Today’s New York Times features a thoughtful Op-Ed by Chinese human rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong about a visit to Tibet during the ongoing wave of self-immolations. “I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom,” he says.

Though counts being kept around the world do vary, around 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest China’s occupation of Tibet. Most of these incidents took place this year, and their rate of occurrence doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Twenty-eight Tibetans immolated in November, when the Chinese Communist Party met to choose new leaders, and at least five Tibetans have done so this month. How did this begin?

The wave of immolations began in 2009, when a young monk named Tapey set himself on fire near Kirti Monastery, in Ngaba. Two years later, another monk from the same monastery self-immolated. Eleven more immolations followed in 2011, and the number has dramatically increased in 2012, with laypeople as well as monks and nuns setting themselves alight.

The total number of immolations is tricky to calculate. Rangzen, the International Tibet Independence Movement, started counting in 1998, and says the total since 2009 is 100. The International Campaign for Tibet counts 92 on its immolation fact sheet, though at least three confirmed immolations have happened since it was last updated. (Neither of these totals includes a 30-year-old man who stabbed himself last month, using his blood to write “Independent Tibet” on a wall before he died.)

For its part, the Chinese government has called His Holiness the Dalai Lama a terrorist, claiming that he’s encouraging these Tibetans to set themselves on fire. His Holiness has been wary about either condemning or applauding the immolators, as he explained in this television interview.

Tibet expert Robert Thurman commented on the immolations almost a year ago, when only a few Tibetans, all of them monastics, had self-immolated. “The numbers of young monks and nuns burning themselves in a final appeal for a change in the iron hearts of their oppressors strikes straight to the heart of our whole world,” he wrote. Read the rest of the commentary here.

The International Campaign for Tibet has been keeping a list of all the immolators, with photos and biographies for most of them. To see what you can do to help Tibet, visit the ICT or Students for a Free Tibet.

The Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy has just released a documentary called Beyond the Numbers: A Human Perspective on Tibet’s Self-Immolation, which “attempts to restore the full humanity of an immolator beyond the mere number he may get reduced to. It is an endeavor to tell the stories of how they lived, dreamed and died.” The film, created by the TCHRD and Canadian filmmaker Katie Lin, recently screened at the Tibet Museum in Dharamsala, and can be viewed online here.

For more photos of Monday’s rally in New Delhi, visit the Facebook page for John Bush’s film Journey into Buddhism.

(Photo: John Bush)