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Self-Immolations Continue: Who Kills These Tibetans?

By Marco Respinti


While we discuss whether these radical forms of protest are morally acceptable and effective, we should not forget that the CCP is responsible for this tragedy.

*A paper presented at the webinar “Why over 150 Self-Immolations in Tibet?,” co-organized by the Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies & Engagement and the Tibetan Youth Congress on April 9, 2022.

Singer Tsewang Norbu. Source: Central Tibetan Administration.

Tsewang Norbu (1996–2022) was a very popular Tibetan singer. Among other things, he reached fame as a competitor in the reality show Sing! China. This was a paradox, given the fact that Norbu’s country, Tibet, is not and has never been a part of China, but a country occupied by the totalitarian regime led by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Norbu died on February 25, 2022, at age 25, a few days before Losar, the Tibetan New Year’s Day. He set himself on fire outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the “Place of Gods,” the capital of Tibet.

A month later, on March 27, an 81-year-old man by the name of Taphun (1941–2022), a resident of the Meruma nomadic village in Ngaba (Ch. Ngawa) county, now incorporated in China’s Sichuan province, died the same death in front of a police station near the Kirti Gompa Tibetan Buddhist monastery. The news of both these deaths was given by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), or the Tibetan government in exile, in Dharamshala, India.

Only three more days elapsed and, on March 30, yet another Tibetan, Tsering Samdup, set himself on fire as well, Radio Free Asia reported, near a police station not far from a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Kyegudo (Ch. Jiegu), in Yushul (Ch, Yushu) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province, and was immediately taken away by the authorities.

There are 159 confirmed cases of Tibetans who set themselves on fire within the borders of China since 2009. Another ten have taken their lives in Nepal and India, where large populations of Tibetan exiles live. Radio Free Asia maintains an online, continually updated list of these victims, and I want to publicly acknowledge and thank my colleague and friend Ms. Tenzin Dicky, at Radio Free Asia, for helping me navigating the Tibetan language of that document in preparation of today’s webinar.

Now, there is only one reason so many Tibetans, many of whom monks, kill themselves in this atrocious way, suffering tremendous pain, and this reason is the oppression and persecution they endure because of the CCP’s occupation of their country, abuse of their religious liberty, and cultural genocide.

Ngaba, the starting point

A book on the subject is very important, and my colleague at Bitter Winter, Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne, reviewed it carefully. It is entitled “Eat The Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town,” published by award-winning American journalist Barbara Demick in 2020. It tells the story of Ngaba city, the seat of Ngaba county, where old Taphun immolated himself on March 27 this year. This is not by accident, and for two reasons. The first is that Ngaba is considered the world capital of self-immolations. The second is that Demick moved to China in 2007, specifically developing an interest in Tibet, visiting both the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan which are part of historical Tibet while being located outside of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region. Her book focuses in fact on self-immolations in Sichuan.

The fame of Ngaba city started on February 27, 2009, when a young monk from the Kirti Gompa monastery, Lobsang Tashi, nicknamed “Tapey,” set himself on fire to protest the harsh Chinese repression of the peaceful demonstrations that took place in all Tibetan regions the previous year.

In fact, on May 10, 2008, the 49th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese military occupation of Tibet, peaceful protests of monks and nuns started in Lhasa, followed by other spontaneous demonstrations in monasteries throughout the entire Tibetan plateau until March 25, to a total of 150, according to the CCP’s Xinhua News Agency. The severe repression by the Chinese police and the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army didn’t wait much. According to the Chinese government, 23 people were killed during the riots. According to the CTA, they were instead 203 and according to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, they were 400. Foreign journalists were expelled, Amnesty International reported that 1,000 Tibetan protestors remained “unaccounted for” by June 2008, and the CTA reported 5,600 arrests of Tibetans between March 2008 and January 2009, with 1,294 injured in the same period.

Setting himself on fire for protesting this blatant violence operated by the CCP, monk “Tapey,” according to Introvigne’s summary of Demick, “wanted to imitate famous monks in Buddhist history who self-immolated by fire protesting for various causes, but did not know very well how to do it. He was saved from death by the police, and later appeared—drugged, according to Demick—in CCP propaganda videos, where he ‘confessed’ that he had been ‘manipulated’ by other Kirti monks to do what he did.”

A view of the Kirti Gompa monastery in Ngaba. Credits.

Why Ngaba?

So, the sad story of monk “Tapey” is the starting point of the contemporary phenomenon of self-immolations of Tibetans for Tibet, now counting, as mentioned earlier, 169 victims, both inside and outside the Chinese borders. Roughly one third of them happened in Ngaba or nearby.

But why Ngaba? There may be a variety of reasons, but Demick interestingly suggests that “the city became the center of these protests because it was the first area populated by Tibetans to experience the massive vexations of the Chinese Communist Army, from their first incursions in the area in the 1930s, when the starving Maoist soldiers boiled and ate the skins of the sacred monastery drums and the votive Buddhist figurines after they discovered they were made of barley flour and butter.” This is the reason Demick’s books is entitled “Eat the Buddha.” Chinese Communist soldiers also destroyed precious manuscripts and killed monks, and this well before the 1958 campaign and the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) with all its horrors.

Why self-immolation?

In those old days armed reaction was a possibility, or many thought it was. Today, Tibetans believe that option is over, and for very practical reasons. Thus, they turn to self-immolation.

Self-immolation comes chiefly from a religious hope, considering that a non-violent act (injuring only the victim and nobody else) can change the world. This matter may be discussed at length and in depth, and here specialists of Tibetan Buddhism have much to comment. I just want to mention two useful resources.

The first (already pointed out by Bitter Winter in the past) is a special issue of the “Revue d’Études Tibétaines” that includes the proceedings of a conference held at the Collège de France in Paris in 2012, available on the Internet for free download through the “Digital Himalaya” project, which preserves and makes available historical multimedia materials relating to the Himalaya region. Those studies show a variety of positions on self-immolation and an important debate on the subject, including the attitude of the Dalai Lama, who has tried to express respect for the bravery of the victims while not encouraging the practice, and the theological position of Buddhism on these incidents, which have a long tradition among different Buddhist schools.

The second is a 2004 study by Italian philosopher Andrea Di Maio, professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and a disciple of the late Italian Jesuit Father Roberto Busa (1913–2011), who is credited as the inventor of the hypertext that we all use today on the Internet and in computers. Let me add that Father Busa had no intention to become a cybernetic superstar. He just envisioned the most practical way to reach his goal when he was creating the Index Thomisticus, that is to say the lemmatization of the complete works by Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), published on the web in 2005.

Di Maio’s essay on religion and suicide carefully distinguishes between martyrdom, suicide, and self-sacrifice, keeping a keen eye also on excesses and fundamentalism. And even if his study concentrates chiefly on Christianity and Islam, his general considerations are certainly useful also to the scholars who wish to explore this matter within a Buddhist context.

Let us today move beyond this. Considering self-immolation as a substitute for armed reaction, for both practical and religious reasons, let us wonder whether Tibetan self-immolations do achieve their goal. Demick answers both yes and no: yes, because self-immolations cause embarrassment to the Chinese authorities slowing down, to some extent, the persecution of Tibetans; no, because they give an excuse to the same Chinese authorities to make access to Ngaba more difficult.

Truly, this question is for Buddhist theologians as well as for Tibetan scholars and politicians. As to myself, I wish to conclude moving to my last suggestion.

Palden Choetso’s body inside Nyitso monastery, Tibet after his 2011 self-immolation. Credits

Patriotism and sacrifice

I wish in fact to question the morality of self-immolation. I am neither a Tibetan Buddhist nor a Buddhist of any other kind, and of course I do not want to make any comment that may seem inappropriate or offensive to Buddhists and Tibetans.

I just want, in fact, to point out that human life, all human life is sacred. It is given to humans as sacred, and humans have the task to make it also holy. Killing fellow human beings is then a crime, in fact punished by laws and condemned by moral and spiritual authorities.

Suicide is also deplorable and morally unacceptable because those who commit it ultimately play on the illusion of being the creators and masters of life. Or suicide is the direct consequence of a despair so profound that it throws those who commit it into the dark abyss of nihilism, where all is nothing and nothing is all.

As I said, I am not a Buddhist. I am a Roman Catholic. In the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” published in its final form in 1997, it is said that God gives life to humans, and humans are the administrators of the lives they have received from God. Humans, thus, should keep and defend their own lives (no. 2280). At the end of their lives, humans give back life to God, who is the only master of life. Thus, suicide is contrary to this concept (no. 2281). It is contrary to moral law, and it is even a more serious moral violation when a person commits suicide presuming to educate others, especially the youth (no. 2282).

These words come from the Catholic Catechism, but I am sure their essence may be grasped by every person and within every religion or spiritual way.

However, the very paragraph where the Catholic Catechism indicts suicide as contrary to the moral law also states: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (no. 2282).

I am no theologian. I just want to underline that the sacrifice of Tibetans who give their own lives, harming no one else, to raise the conscience of the world in face of the cultural genocide waged against their own people by the CCP is not motivated by nihilism. Those Tibetan patriots are instead persons who take on themselves the burden of an entire people, singling themselves out as sacrificial lambs. They give away the most important gift that God bestowed upon them to try to stop the harm done to their compatriots by the persecutors. They put at the disposal of their neighbors the final weapon, the poorest and the most powerful, they have at their own disposal: their very lives.

The Tibetans’ last resort is in fact not called suicide, but self-immolation, and this is not just a piece of linguistic sophistry.

My real question at this point is: Who is the real killer in this story? Who is truly responsible for the self-immolations of Tibetans? Who armed the hand of Tibetans who set themselves on fire? There is a horrible crime called incitement to commit suicide. What is the cultural genocide waged on by the CCP in Tibet to wipe entirely out a whole people if not a form of horrible, continuous violence, one form of which is the incitement to commit suicide?

Student ID of Jan Palach. Credits.

Westerners are familiar with the name of Jan Palach (1948–1969), the Czech student who set himself on fire in 1969, with some companions, to protest the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Communist Soviet Union. Palach is said to have been inspired by Buddhist monks protesting in Vietnam. Before Palach, in 1968 a Polish protester in Warsaw and a Ukrainian protester in Kiev did the same to similarly challenge Communist violence.

It was reflecting upon Palach’s extreme act that Czech Catholic theologian Father Josef Zvěřina (1913–1990), interviewed by fellow Czech poet Marie Rút Křížková (1936–2022), said: “…It was a testimony, a gesture like when soldiers go to the assault during the war, or when they are ordered to blow up a bridge, and they know they can face death. That is, [Palach’s death] fulfills a moral order, therefore it cannot be put at the same level of a suicide, it must be considered more as a sacrifice, a sacrifice of himself … as the cry of pain of an entire people, an unrepeatable gesture, a supreme victim” (“Žít jako znamení, Rozhovory s Josefem Zvěřinou,” Prague: Zvon 1995, p. 101. I thank Mr. Angelo Bonaguro, of Fondazione Russia Cristiana in Italy, for helping me locating this quote).

Again, I am not qualified to say whether Father Zvěřina was correct. All I know is that Father Zvěřina and the Dalai Lama seems to share the same view on the topic: they admire the testimonies of those who immolate themselves, while neither asking nor pushing anyone to do it. Second, before uttering any judgment on single cases and persons, we should all carefully investigate to whom the hand that kills belongs, both in the former Soviet empire and in Tibet and China today.

I do hope this may seriously help answering the question that gives the title to today’s webinar.

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