International Journal of Tantric Studies

China Shadows and Tibet Flames: The “Policy of Immolations” and Future Scenarios

by Piero Verni
Given the deteriorating situation inside Tibet since 2008 leading to the increasing cases of self-immolations by Tibetans, we are compelled to submit our resignations. Furthermore, the United Front did not respond positively to the Memorandum on Genuine Autonomy for the Tibetan People presented in 2008 and its Note in 2010. At this particular time, it is difficult to have substantive dialogue.

With these bitter words, Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen resigned on June 3, 2012 as Envoys of the Dalai Lama involved in the difficult negotiations with members of the Beijing government. The negotiations had begun in 2002 and had been brusquely interrupted in 2010. Kalon Tripa Dr. Lobsang Sangay, the Head of the Central Tibetan Administration in exile, regretfully accepted the resignations of the two Envoys.

While in Dharamsala this resignation marked what is probably the last act of the attempt by the Dalai Lama and his Government in exile to enter into a meaningful dialogue with Beijing – the Middle Way Approach –the situation in Tibet was progressively worsening. A few days before Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen’s resignation, two young Tibetans had set themselves on fire in Lhasa to protest against the Chinese occupation. The capital of the Tibetan Autonomous Region was immediately closed to tourists and subjected to an undeclared martial law.

On the 27th of February 2009 in the town of Ngaba, in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Sichuan province, Tapey, a young monk at Kirti Monastery, immolated himself as a sign of protest, after waving a Tibetan flag with a photo of the Dalai Lama. While still in flames, he was shot in his legs and one of his arms by the People's Armed Police (PAP) personnel, who extinguished the fire after Tapey fell down.

Since Since then, 41 lay and civil people (35 men and 6 women) have immolated themselves in protest against the Chinese occupation. On May 30, 2012 Rikyo, a 30-year-old mother of three children, burned herself to death near Jonang Dzamthang Gonchen Monastery in Sichuan province, in Ngaba region, which is the epicenter of a continuing wave of Tibetan self-immolations. Last Friday June 15, 2012 Tamding Thar, a Tibetan in his 50s, set himself on fire in Amdo Chentsa region of Tibet.

On June 20, two young Tibetans, Ngawang Norphel, 22 and Tenzin Khedup, 24 set themselves on fire in Zatoe town of Keygudo, Kham, eastern Tibet calling for Tibet’s independence and long life of the Dalai Lama.

This “Policy of Immolations” has caught the Chinese government by surprise. They have to come to terms with the unwelcome truth that since the widespread revolt in the spring of 2008, the situation in both the Tibetan Autonomous Region and the Tibetan Prefectures of Qinhai and Sichuan has never “normalized”. Although Beijing tries to discredit those who make these tragic gestures by labelling them as acts of madness due to mental imbalance, these self-immolations are gestures of radical protest against the Chinese presence in Tibet, which the local populations experience as a fully-fledged colonial domination.

The spirit underlying these dramatic choices is well expressed in a kind of spiritual testament left by Sopa Rinpoche, an important monk who immolated himself on January 8, 2012 in the county of Darlag (Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Qinghai province):

I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness. I am taking this action neither for myself nor to fulfil a personal desire nor to earn an honour. I am sacrificing my body with the firm conviction and a pure heart just as the Buddha bravely gave his body to a hungry tigress.

Beijing has responded to these extreme acts of dissent with repressive measures, immediately arresting the few people who have survived the flames and isolating the areas where the self-immolations have taken place. However, the Chinese government is seriously embarrassed by the situation. The idea that the “Policy of Immolations” might spread from the remote areas of north-east Tibet throughout the whole Tibetan Autonomous Region, and that the flames threatening to engulf the Chinese prairies might be witnessed by television cameras and tourists’ snapshots, most probably is keeping Chinese officials awake at night.

Certainly a solution to the problem might be found in the moderate proposals of the Dalai Lama, who long ago stopped demanding independence for the Land of Snows, opting instead for some measure of genuine autonomy for Tibet within the People’s Republic of China. Between the end of the last century and the beginning of the new millennium somebody at Zhongnanhai, in the headquarters of the Communist Party and the Central government of the People's Republic of China, was probably tempted to give credit to the Dalai Lama, allowing a series of talks with his representatives to begin in 2002, although these talks were abruptly terminated in 2010.

Most probably there are two sides to the problem. On the one hand, Beijing is convinced, particularly since the revolt of 2008, that even the Dalai Lama cannot curb the protests of his people or convince them to accept the Chinese presence in Tibet. Beijing must still be haunted by the spectre of the 1950s, when despite the Dalai Lama’s open disapproval Tibetans conducted a fierce campaign of armed resistance to the Communist armies. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama’s proposal that all the territories of ex independent Tibet – an area much greater than the present Tibetan Autonomous Region - should be reunited in a single autonomous entity clashes with the deeply rooted conviction of the Chinese authorities that the more China exposes itself to the laws and the risks of a market economy, the more the Communist Party must tighten its control over society. It is very clear to all the leaders involved in governing China since 1989 that Gorbachev’s great mistake was to combine the indispensable opening up of the economic system with political concessions. There is no doubt that Beijing considers this the fatal error which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. And this is a road where no senior politician in China wants to go.

Therefore, there is no way that Beijing will grant even the most basic rights. The Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xia Bo is still imprisoned in a forced labour camp (laogai), members of the Falun Dafa movement are still being persecuted, dissident bloggers are crushed, Internet is strictly censored and so on. In such a restrictive climate the reasonable proposals of the Dalai Lama have fallen on deaf ears, and are likely to continue to do so in the future. The concession of genuine autonomy to the Tibetan people is seen in Beijing as a first very dangerous crack in the political wall, which could rapidly widen to the point of bringing down the whole building.

Dr. Lobsang Sangay believes that dialogue on the Tibetan question is still possible: “The Tibetan leadership remains firmly committed to non-violence and the Middle-Way Approach, and strongly believes that the only way to resolve the issue of Tibet is through dialogue. The Tibetan leadership considers substance to be primary and process as secondary, and is ready to engage in meaningful dialogue anywhere and at any time”, he wrote in a communiqué released on 3 June, 2012. Nevertheless, the idea that the Dalai Lama’s proposals might be accepted by the current Chinese leadership seems increasingly more like a mirage.

At this point it is difficult to predict how the situation may evolve. People will possibly continue to immolate themselves in Tibet, fuelling the vicious circle of protest, repression and more protest, which never really died out and has flared up more strongly since 2008. On the other side of the Himalayas, in the variegated world of the Tibetan diaspora in India, there may arise a movement directly opposed to the moderate policies advocated by the Dalai Lama and his government over the last few decades. That these policies have had absolutely no results, a fact recognized by the Dalai Lama himself in a BBC interview in 2009, when he admitted that his Middle Way Approach has been “…more or less a failure”, is driving many refugees towards more radical positions. It seems likely that may soon arise some kind of Tibetan independence party in exile, inspired by Gandhi’s Indian National Congress or other Third World liberation movements. And we cannot rule out the possibility that such a political movement within a few years will become a majority force among the people of the Tibetan diaspora, and impose changes on the policies of the Central Tibetan Administration.

In any case, whatever the developments in the situation inside and outside Tibet might be, it is obvious that there will be no changes on the Roof of the World without prior changes in the state of things within China itself. The current regime has widely demonstrated that it has no to open the door to any chance of genuine renewal. Mao Zedong’s old phrase “A single spark can start a prairie fire” is engraved in the memory of the Chinese leadership, which has not the slightest intention of allowing any spark to be lit or to start a fire. Nevertheless, if a new beginning will dawn in Beijing, the reverberations of that light can rapidly illuminate the Tibetan plateaux, giving rise to scenarios, which are difficult to imagine today.

Certainly, given the present state of things such scenarios look more like political fantasies than rational hypotheses. But in 1988 who could be so crazy to predict that within a few years the Soviet Union would collapse or that the Berlin Wall would come down in a single night?