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Tibet’s Epidemic of Suicides by Fire

How self-immolation threatens the Chinese government.

Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images

February 27, 2009, was the third day of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. It was also the day that self-immolation came to Tibet. The authorities had just cancelled a Great Prayer Festival (Monlam) to commemorate the victims of the government crackdown in 2008. A monk by the name of Tapey stepped out of the Kirti Monastery and set his body alight on the streets of Ngawa, in the region known in Tibetan as Amdo, a place of great religious reverence and relevance, now designated as part of China’s Sichuan Province. Losar is usually a celebratory festival, but it was marked by the majority of Tibetans in 2009 in silent mourning—a mourning that continues to this day. On account of the unrelenting government suppression that followed in the wake of protests across Tibet the year before, a slogan has spread secretly among the people of Tibet: “No Losar.” Tibetans had decided not to celebrate Losar, as a means of resisting Chinese rule. And continuing this resistance, Tapey’s final act would become the beginning of a series of self-immolations that have spread across Tibet and beyond in recent years.

Since that day in February 2009 when the flames of protest were first lit in Tibet, I have documented every act of self-immolation and shared this information on my blog. I have provided daily updates, just as I first chronicled the protest movement of 2008.

Back in February of 2009, as I read about Tapey’s final act, I never could have imagined that so many Tibetans would sacrifice their bodies and lives to these flames, in a series of protests unlike any that the world had ever seen. And I certainly never could have predicted that my blogging would barely be able to keep pace with the lives sacrificed for this cause. In Ngawa alone, thirty-nine more people have followed in Tapey’s footsteps. At least ten Tibetans have given themselves to the flames on the same street where Tapey self-immolated; it is now known among Tibetans as “Heroes’ Lane.” As of July 9, 2015, 146 Tibetans have chosen the path of self-immolation. This is unprecedented in human history.

The residents of Amchock are known for their devoutness and their unyielding struggles against Chinese rule. In the 1950s, almost all of the nomadic tribes of Amchok engaged in a lengthy uprising against the CCP’s army—a struggle that ended in state suppression that drove them nearly to the point of extinction. One of the few texts to explore this history is Tenzin Palbar’s unforgettable memoir The Tragic History of My Fatherland. In no uncertain terms, its author describes a “cruel and inhuman massacre” in which courageous local resistance fighters against CCP rule faced a well-armed opponent with no qualms about using the harshest means to crush rebels and punish the populace.

Amchok is located within the larger Amdo region, and any discussion of history or the contemporary situation here must begin with the year 1958. It was in 1958 that the Chinese army and government perpetrated a human tragedy that affected nearly every family across Tibet, but especially here. This history is engraved deeply in the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, so that some refer to the Cultural Revolution simply as “1958,” despite the fact that the Cultural Revolution did not begin until 1966. The year 1958 has become a shorthand for tragedy—a symbolic gathering point for all of the misfortunes that befell us after “liberation.”

Since 2009, twenty-one people in the Kanlho (Gannan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture have self-immolated. Other than one middle school student and another youth working in Lhasa, all of the self-immolators were nomads. In Amchok alone, there have been four cases of nomads committing self-immolation, while at least sixteen out of Kanlho’s twenty-one self-immolations have been carried out by members of the traditional nomadic tribes of Amchok—survivors or descendants of the “rebel bandits” slaughtered in the 1950s.

On January 12, 2013, a twenty-two-year-old nomad from Amchok, Tsering Tashi, followed the path of self-immolation. That morning, he had put on a clean set of traditional Tibetan clothes and let out his livestock to graze. Around noon, he wrapped his body in wire and then walked into town. His family had no idea of where he was going or what he was about to do.

Its roads not even paved, Amchok township is the type of simple and nondescript small town that you will find in many Tibetan areas. No one saw Tsering Tashi pouring the gasoline onto his body, but we do know that the iron wire wrapped around him made his clothing, soaked in gasoline, burn even more intensely. There, on the dirt road in Amchok, Tsering Tashi set his body alight, as he repeatedly called out a Tibetan term of respect and endearment for the Dalai Lama: “Oh Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso, oh Gyalwa Tenzin Gyatso . . .”

Soon he fell to the ground. The military police arrived and tried to take his body away, but the people surrounding him kept them away, reciting prayers as the flames continued to consume his charred corpse, then lifting up his body and walking past the heavily armed military police to bring him home. Neighbors, family members, and monks brought khatas and conducted a final heartfelt prayer ceremony for him. But officials and public security arrived soon thereafter, demanding that Tsering Tashi’s grieving family cremate him immediately. One official, beating his fist on the family’s table, declared: “Your family has ties to the ‘splittist Dalai Lama clique.’”

More police soon arrived to seal off the entrance to the village, in order to block people from nearby villages coming to pay their final respects. Concerned for the safety of his family and his entire village, Tsering Tashi’s father agreed to have his son’s body creamated that night. Unable to cope with all that was happening around her, his mother passed out and had to be taken to the hospital. In the middle of that cold, dark night, under official monitoring that felt even colder, Tsering Tashi was yet again engulfed in flames, completing his final sacrifice. 

In late 2012, my husband Wang Lixiong, a Chinese scholar engaged in the research on Tibet, analyzed the twenty-six final statements from self-immolators available at that time. Wang’s approach was based in his belief that interpreting protestors’ final statements was essential to understanding these acts: even if some statements were only a few words long, he felt certain that classifying them into categories and analyzing their most common themes could provide a clearer picture of the aspirations behind these acts of protest.

Today, more than three years later, we have access to a significantly larger sample of forty-nine final statements. They include written statements, recordings, and comments made to friends and family. Of the forty-nine cases of self-immolation represented by these statements, forty-four self-immolators are deceased, while two recovered and are living in exile, and the fate of three others remains unknown.

Facing unimaginable pain in order to voice support for all suffering Tibetans, while at the same time maintaining one’s sense of dignity within a dehumanizing political environment, self-immolation enacts an extreme form of self-sublimation. “They think we are scared of their weapons and their repression, but they are wrong,” wrote Tenzin Phuntsok in a leaflet he distributed before his self-immolation at the age of forty-six. “My head held high, I step forward and set my body alight . . . for the dignity of Nangdrol, and for the Tibetan people, to whom I owe unending gratitude” wrote Nangdrol, an eighteen-year-old who self-immolated in Ngawa in 2012. “I am willing to take on this pain for the multitudes of living beings who are suffering,” wrote Rechok, a mother of three who set her body alight and died outside a monastery in Ngawa’s Barma Township in 2012. “I am willing to sacrifice my body and my blood to show my support and respect,” wrote Golok Tulku Sobha Rinpoche, the most senior monastic figure to have self-immolated.

These protestors undergo the ultimate pain of burning each and every cell of their bodies, without harming other living beings, simply to make their voices and grievances heard. Yet the Chinese government has labeled them “terrorists.” The Chinese government has declared self-immolation a crime, thus making those who commit this act “criminals.” And the state has furthermore unveiled an ambitious “campaign against self-immolation” that extends throughout Tibetan areas of the country. One aspect of this campaign has been collective punishment of the Tibetan community, including the arrest and sentencing of relatives, friends, and neighbors of self-immolators. Another has been a resolute blockade on any and all information related to instances of self-immolation. In this environment, news of such incidents only manages to find its way out of Tibet days, weeks, or even months after the fact. And because of this information blockade, the real number of self-immolations may be considerably higher than is currently known.

Can self-immolation really resolve the issues facing Tibet? No one knows for sure. But as Tenzin Phuntsok wrote in his final statement, these protestors are “unable to go on just waiting for the rest of their lives.” As heartbreaking as this may seem, this statement merits careful consideration by anyone who hopes to understand the origins and motivations of this wave of self-immolations: the need to take action, and to make one’s voice heard in an environment in which there is no other means of doing so.

Readers should not that there is not the slightest trace of violence in any of these statements: the action they refer to is of a different type. The Tibetan people’s religious beliefs, combined with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s unwavering stance on nonviolence, place strong restraints upon our people. These teachings are embodied in the act of self-immolation: the self can be annihilated, but no one else may be harmed. Choepak Kyap and Sonam, two young men in their twenties who self-immolated together in Ngawa’s Barma Township in 2012, left a final statement in which they explicitly stated: “We do not want anyone else to be harmed.”

The final statements of nine self-immolators clearly articulated protests against the Chinese government, or demands directed at it. Furthermore, a number of protestors have shouted protest slogans at the moment of immolation, such as “Allow His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet!” “Free Tibet!” and “Release the Panchen Lama!” Finally, even in those cases where no final statement was left and no slogans were shouted, self-immolation in itself is clearly a deeply symbolic act of protest and demand for change in Tibet. 

Excerpted from Tibet on Fire: Self-Immolation Against Chinese Rule by Tsering Woeser. Copyright © 2015 by Tsering Woeser. It is reprinted here with the permission of Verso Books.