Succession tensions rise in Tibet
By Saransh Sehgal
DHARAMSALA, India - In addition to regular demonstrations, self-immolation is
increasingly becoming a way for Tibetan monks inside China to show their faith
in and support of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and their frustration
over Beijing's intensified suppression of religious freedom and denouncement of
their spiritual leader.
An escalating verbal battle between Beijing and the Dalai Lama over the
latter's reincarnation seems to have intensified protests and prompted more
attempted suicides by Tibetan monks to show support of the exiled Tibetan
In the past two weeks alone, at least three Tibetan monks from the Kirti
monastery in Aba (Ngaba) prefecture in western Sichuan province near the
Tibetan border, have set themselves on fire to protest against Beijing's Tibet
policy, according to London-based Free Tibet.
The latest case of immolation happened on October 3, when a
young monk believed to be 17 or 18 years old from the monastery set himself
alight near the vegetable market in Aba city. He was reportedly holding a
photograph of the Dalai Lama and shouted: "There are no religious rights and
freedoms in Tibet!" The police put out the fire and took him away. This is the
fifth such self-immolation incident this year.
A week earlier, on September 26, two young monks, Lobsang Kalsang and Lobsang
Konchok aged between 18 and 19 years old, also from Kirti monastery,
self-immolated. The monks waved the banned Tibetan flag and called for
religious freedom and "Long live the Dalai Lama" before they set themselves on
Lobsang Kelsang is the brother of Phuntsog, a 21-year-old monk also from Kirti
monastery, a site of frequent unrest in the past three years, who died after
setting himself on fire in March.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency also reported the September 26 incident,
however, it said the two monks were rescued by police shortly after they set
fire on themselves and they were given prompt medical treatment. "The suicide
attempt is under further investigation," Xinhua said.
Besides such suicide attempts, there are also reports about Tibetan protests.
According to a report on the website of Radio Free Asia, hundreds of Tibetans
staged a protest at the county seat of Seda (Serta) in Ganzi (Kardze)
prefecture of Sichuan on China's National Day of October 1.
The protest was triggered by the authorities' removal of a portrait of the
Dalai Lama and a huge Tibetan national flag from a building and throwing them
on the street. The protesters were reported to have shouted slogans calling for
the Dalai Lama's return and freedom for Tibetans.
The latest self-immolations and protest by Tibetans inside China happened when
Beijing and the Dalai Lama were escalating their verbal war over the Dalai
Lama's reincarnation. Analysts believe the intensified row has increased
frustration among religious Tibetans that Beijing will enforce on them a new
Dalai Lama of its choice when the current spiritual leader passes away.
On September 24, the Dalai Lama released a statement on his reincarnation
saying he would consult Buddhist scholars when he reached the age of "about 90"
to evaluate whether the institution of the Dalai Lama should continue,
reiterating that the Chinese government has no role whatsoever to play in this
"I shall leave clearly written instructions about this," he said. "Bear in mind
that, apart from the reincarnation recognized through such legitimate methods,
no recognition or acceptance should be given to a candidate chosen for
political ends by anyone, including those in the People's Republic of China."
But Beijing stands firm that the Dalai Lama's reincarnation needs to be
endorsed by the central government of China. Two days after the Dalai Lama's
statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the Dalai Lamas had
never decided on their own reincarnations, accusing the current Dalai Lama of
"distorting and denying" history.
"I would like to point out the title of the Dalai Lama is conferred by the
central government and is otherwise illegal. The [current] 14th Dalai Lama was
approved by the then republican government," Hong said. "There has never been a
practice of a living Dalai Lama identifying his own successor."
Tibetan monks both inside and outside Tibet still regard every word of the
Dalai Lama as sacred, their God-King, despite the fact that he lives in exile.
Despite Beijing's massive economic buildup in infrastructure and increased
living standards of Tibetans, its iconoclastic views and hardline policies on
culture and religion towards the ethnic minorities remain a challenge. The
riots on March 2008 inside Tibet, as well as incessant unrest in Xinjiang in
its far west, remind of problematic human-rights situation in China.
In some experts' view, Tibetans inside Tibet are very much aware of the
geopolitics that surrounds the Dalai Lama's reincarnation and some radical
religious believers are willing to take extremes to draw the world's attention
to the situation.
"It is tragic that a fifth monk has set fire to himself in Tibet this year ...
A growing number of Tibetans clearly feel that this is the only way that they
can be heard," Free Tibet director Stephanie Brigden said in the statement.
Dr Dibyesh Anand, associate professor of International Relations from the
London's University of Westminster in an e-mail to Asia Times Online said,
"There is a continuing cycle of repression and protests in Tibetan regions in
China since 2008, most of it outside the purview of media.
The self-immolations should be seen in that context. Monks are aware of the
politics the government is playing over the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama
and the danger that the same politics will take place over the next Dalai Lama.
This realization is part of the picture. But the most important factor here is
not the Dalai Lama and his statements but the nature of Chinese rule in Tibet,
which allows for no room for accommodation with the most fundamental of Tibetan
aspirations to be able to worship their main religious figure."
Suicide is strictly prohibited according to Tibetan Buddhist principles.
Nonetheless, after Beijing tightened regulations on Tibetan monasteries after
the 2008 unrest in Tibet, self-immolation began to emerge as a new form of
protest or sacrifice in Tibet. The first known self-immolation occurred in the
exiled Tibetan community on April 27, 1998, when Thupten Ngodup, an exiled
Tibetan, set fire to himself during a hunger strike in New Delhi.
This year alone at least five Tibetan monks have attempted self-immolation. The
first was Phuntsok from Kirti monastery, who set himself ablaze on March 16 to
mark the third anniversary of a bloody crackdown on Tibetan demonstrators
there. Phuntsok was seized, allegedly beaten by the police and died the next
day. The second incident happened on August 15 when 29-year-old monk Tsewang
Norbu of Nyitso Monastery in Tawu, Ganzi self-immolated himself demanding
freedom in Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.
Executive director Urgen Tenzin of the Tibetan Center for Human Rights &
Democracy (TCHRD), an exile Tibetan human rights group, told Asia Times Online
that "the monks gets frustrated and are compelled to do such acts because of
the policies of the Chinese government. After the 2008 protests the Chinese
government has continued their suppression specifically in Tibetan monasteries.
"It is very much evident to the world what is happening inside Tibet. The PRC
[People's Republic of China] conducts a 'patriotic re-education' campaign where
the monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and their own gurus. Clearly
the Communist Party wants them to follow the communist ideology, which is
against the Buddhist principles. The latest self-immolation act could be one
reason because of the verbal row on the Dalai Lama's reincarnation issue."
Exiled Tibetans here are protesting against China over the latest
self-immolation cases, sitting hunger strikes and candle-lit vigils, appealing
to the world to pressure China to take steps to improve the human-rights
situation inside Tibet.
The Tibetan government in exile in an immediate statement after reports of the
September 26 self-immolation incident said:
The Kashag of the Central
Tibetan Administration is deeply saddened by the latest development in Tibet
involving two monks setting themselves on fire. The Kashag conveys its
heartfelt condolences and prayers to the family members of both individuals.
The Central Tibetan Administration calls upon the Chinese authorities to
immediately address the grievances of the Tibetan people and resolve the issue
of Tibet peacefully.
A number of countries and international
rights groups too have shown deep concerns over the incident and have objected
to Beijing's policies over Tibet. Their statements express their support to the
Kristina Ojuland MEP, a former Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister said in a
Such a radical form of protest illustrates the despair of
the Tibetans, who are seeking freedom of religion as well as meaningful
autonomy in the historic area of Tibet. Continuous desperate acts of protest
also demonstrate that the Tibetans determinedly resist the ongoing violations
of human rights and the cultural genocide that is being carried out in Tibet.
Therefore, the European Union and its Member states too cannot remain silent
and must address the situation of human rights in Tibet more rigorously with
The United States State Department too has urged China
to respect the rights of Tibetans and address their grievances, in a statement
In light of the continuing underlying grievances of China's
Tibetan population, we again urge Chinese leaders to respect the rights of
Tibetans, to address policies in Tibetan areas that have created tension, and
to protect Tibetans' unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity. We
continue to urge the Chinese government to allow access to Tibetan areas of
China for both journalists and diplomats.
rebuked the statement, "We oppose any country or any person using Tibet-related
issues to interfere in China's internal affairs and impair China's social
stability and ethnic unity," Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told
journalists. "The Chinese government protects the lawful rights and interests
of ethnic minorities," he said.
Leading experts on Tibet suggest the situation inside Tibet is not what Beijing
portrays to the world, with imposed monastic laws making monks uncomfortable.
However, the self-immolations are a clear messages to Beijing.
Associate professor Elliot Sperling, an expert on the history of Tibet and
Tibetan-Chinese relations at Indiana University, tells Asia Times Online:
current instances of self-immolation by Tibetan monks in protest to Chinese
policies have raised serious concerns, inside China and outside, that this
particular form of protest will not end here. It is no longer possible for
China to shroud such actions in secrecy in spite of attempts to impose a news
blackout. Moreover, as a powerful form of political protest by Buddhist monks,
self-immolation has a decades-old history going back to protests in [South]
Vietnam in the early 1960s.
Dr Dibyesh Anand, associate
professor of International Relations says:
Self-immolation of monks
reflects a deep dissatisfaction amongst the Tibetans inside China. At the same
time this desperate act is also one of hope, a hope that such sacrifices will
mobilize more Tibetans; bring international attention and hopefully more
international pressure on China to accommodate the legitimate aspirations of
Tibetans. That the monks are at the forefront of this should not be a surprise
since they have borne the brunt of all kinds of pressures from the government
to be patriotically re-educated.
However, this form of protest is dangerous for Tibetans too. If such acts are
represented as the highest form of sacrifice one can make for the cause of
Tibet and individuals are extolled as true patriots, we should not be surprised
that more and more Tibetans will follow suit. Self-immolation is not
non-violent for it is violence against one-self. And once violence of any kind
enters a struggle, it raises the cost of protest, brutalizes people and even
makes it easier for the state to act with far greater violence. It is one thing
for the exiled Tibetans to mobilize awareness campaigns around these acts, and
it is another to venerate them as legitimate sacrifice for the danger here is
of more copycat self-immolations.
Saransh Sehgal is a
contributor based in Dharamsala, India, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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