Since 2009, more than 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, protesting the policies and actions of the Chinese government. These are acts of resistance, caused by the desperation of members of an ancient civilization which is, perhaps, on the verge of disappearance.

Kiran Mohandas Menon
29 May 2013
Remembering a self-immolating protester in Dharamsala, India. Demotix/Katie Lin. All rights reserved.

Remembering a self-immolating protester in Dharamsala, India. Demotix/Katie Lin. All rights reserved.

Forty four years ago, Jan Palach, a twenty-year-old Czech student set himself alight in Prague’s historic Wenceslas square. Palach was protesting the Soviet occupation of the nation and the inactivity and what he saw as acceptance by his fellow countrymen of its consequences. The shock and anger that his act invoked lingered on as Czechoslovaks protested against the Communist regime, which finally collapsed after the non violent “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, under the leadership of the late Vaclav Havel.

Six years earlier, in Vietnam, Thich Quang Duc, a Mahayana Buddhist monk, sat himself in a meditative pose in a busy road in Saigon and set himself alight. His act was in protest of President Ngo Dinh Diem’s religiously oppressive policies and persecution of Buddhists. President Kennedy would later describe a photograph of the event taken by Malcolm Browne as “having generated more emotion around the world than any other news picture in history”.

Since 2009, more than 100 people have set themselves on fire in Tibet, most of them calling for ‘freedom’ for their region from Chinese rule and for the safe return of their spiritual leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, who is currently in exile in India. These are acts of resistance, caused by the desperation of members of a civilization with ancient roots which is declining and, in some ways, on the verge of disappearance.

But despite the severe and drastic nature of their actions, nothing of note has changed in Tibet, with the People’s Republic of China’s immediate reaction to most of these incidents being merely to suppress the flow of information. Reports state that Chinese troops often surround the houses of the deceased, preventing villagers and monks from entering the household to conduct traditional religious rituals. Local regions are then threatened that funding and support will be stopped if such acts occur again.

So what is it that drives these generally young men and women to make the ultimate sacrifice?

Despite the international attention that has made Tibet part of popular culture, the country’s real nature and ethos still remain largely misunderstood. In a sense Tibet remains a terra incognita. The Tibet of popular perception may have been a land of ‘enlightened’ monks, ancient monasteries and time-honoured beliefs, but the real Tibet was also a land of nomads and grasslands.

The Chinese government's historical policies to forcibly remove these Tibetan nomads from their grasslands and ‘resettle’ them elsewhere has deprived them of their traditional way of living, leaving many of these families impoverished.

Further, despite considerable effort by the Chinese authorities to ‘demonize’ the Dalai Lama, he still remains the ultimate authority for the majority of Tibetans. This is exemplified by young Tibetan men and women who risk their lives calling for his return despite the fact that they’ve not even met him. Yet, it still remains a crime to possess photographs of the fourteenth Dalai Lama in the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The massive influx of skilled labourers from elsewhere and the changing social fabric of the region have led to most Tibetans being economically marginalised in their own land.

Today, more ethnic Chinese occupy the Tibet Autonomous Region than ethnic Tibetans. The culture and identity of a nation is being killed, a sort of mental ‘cleansing’, aimed at ‘integrating’ Tibet into the modern Chinese way of functioning, driven by political propaganda.

The days of Hu Yaobang, the Chinese politician who aimed to introduce liberal policies regarding Tibet and Tibetans, particularly the use of their language and protection of their culture, are long gone. Yaobang faced opposition from inside the Chinese Communist Party and was made to resign from his post. Student led demonstrations after his death culminated in the notorious June Fourth incident in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

For now, a land with a complex history faces a severe human crisis. A tragic combination of helplessness and ignorance by the international community has resulted in the people and culture of an ancient land being left to burn.

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Hear from:

Paolo Gerbaudo Sociologist and political theorist, director of the Centre for Digital Culture at King’s College London and author of ‘The Mask and the Flag: Populism and Global Protest’ and ‘The Digital Party: Political Organisation and Online Democracy’, and of the forthcoming ‘The Great Recoil: Politics After Populism and Pandemic’.

Chantal Mouffe Emeritus Professor of Political Theory at the University of Westminster in London. Her most recent books are ‘Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically’, ‘Podemos. In the Name of the People’ and ‘For a Left Populism’.

Spyros A. Sofos Researcher and research coordinator at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University and author of ‘Nation and Identity in Contemporary Europe’, ‘Tormented by History’ and ‘Islam in Europe: Public Spaces and Civic Networks'.

Chair: Walid el Houri Researcher, journalist and filmmaker based between Berlin and Beirut. He is partnerships editor at openDemocracy and lead editor of its North Africa, West Asia project.

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