Tibet: Self-immolation won’t trigger China Spring

Many Tibetans have of late set themselves ablaze to protest China`s rule in Tibet.

In recent months, many Tibetan monks and nuns have set themselves ablaze to protest China`s rule in Tibet. As expected, angry Chinese officials claim that the protests are sponsored by the Dalai Lama.

In an exclusive interview with Kamna Arora of Zeenews.com, Dr Dibyesh Anand, an expert on Tibet, discusses the reason behind self-immolations and evaluates the response of the Dalai Lama and China.

Dr Dibyesh Anand is Associate Professor of International Relations at London`s Westminster University and the author of `Tibet: A Victim of Geopolitics`.

Kamna: Why have Tibetans resorted to self-immolations to challenge China’s policies? What is happening in these Tibetan communities?

Dr Anand: Tibetan resistance against the Chinese rule has taken various forms, often subtle like the possession of the banned picture of the Dalai Lama in prayer rooms, but occasionally spectacular like the massive protests across the Tibetan plateau in 2008 or the recent spate of self-immolations.

Self-immolation protests should be understood in terms of continuity with a politics of resistance and not as a radical break from the past. Even though this form involves violence against one`s own body, it is in the tradition of politics that avoids harming the oppressor and seeks to raise awareness and remind the Chinese government and the rest of the world that Tibetan people are facing a crisis in their everyday life. The exact causes and specific forms of state repression in this locality are unlikely to be known to any outsider for a simple reason - the Chinese government allows no independent media, researcher or observer. Limited information coming out suggests a combination of factors including an overzealous implementation of hardline policies, closing off all avenues for expressing disquiet, and a total securitisation of every aspect of life.

The Dalai Lama is more than a religious leader or a sacred figure to the Tibetans. He is the symbol of the Tibetan nation. A constant attack on the Dalai Lama by the Chinese government is seen as nothing but contempt for the Tibetan way of life and disrespect to the dignity of Tibetan people. Now, if an individual Tibetan wants to protest against this, what avenues does he have? So, a highly repressive system and desperation amongst the Tibetans to highlight the injustices they suffer create the explosive climate in which self-immolations take place. But there is another factor here - a rapidly changing social context in which self-immolation becomes an acceptable practice, in fact a martyrdom. The more individuals burn themselves in protests, the greater chances there are of additional people doing the same in solidarity unless the context and content of the Chinese rule changes.

Since the Chinese government seems to be implementing even harsher security regime in response to the renewed protests to prevent the information from spreading out of the area, the tragic situation is set to get worse.

Kamna: Who is to be blamed for this?

Dr Anand: China is a huge country ruled by a complex network of institutions. Contrary to the commonly held myth of Communist Party of China as a monolith, there are several factors involved in governing minority areas. Whether the primary fault lies with overzealous local officials or with Beijing`s overall Tibet policy, it cannot be denied that China is facing a crisis of credibility in Tibetan regions. Its familiar approach of blaming the Dalai Lama for all the problems in Tibet contradicts its own denial of there being any `Tibet issue` or its stance that Tibetans are happy members of the great Chinese motherland and the Dalai Lama is an insignificant figure.

Given the top-down system that China has, one wonders whether the top leadership ever gets to hear an honest appraisal of the approach toward Tibet. A free and independent media may have enabled the wider Chinese population to know of the tragedy in Tibet. But on the other hand, it may also have fanned a hypernationalist anti-Tibetan antagonism.

Kamna: How can Tibetans challenge China’s policies otherwise?

Dr Anand: It is tempting to buy the narrative that Tibetans have no option but to give up their life. This is the main message being relayed by exile Tibetan activists and their supporters. But this is only part of the full picture. The attitude of Tibetans inside Tibet toward China ranges from complicity to antipathy. Tibetans who work within the current system in China are not betraying their people or culture. Many of them contribute significantly in ensuring the survival of Tibetan religion and culture. They are compelled to be more creative in surviving and at the same time being subversive. Experience of living as Tibetans inside China also exposes racism and discriminatory practices held by the Han majority. There are Tibetans in different parts of China who work tirelessly to make the system more equitable and just. They do not challenge China, but seek to bring a genuine harmony between Tibetans and other ethnic groups, a harmony based on dignity and not paternalism of the majority. Their focus is on incremental change. Therefore, this radical form of protest using self-immolation is neither inevitable nor desirable.

Let me clarify why it is not desirable. Some exile Tibetans point out to the self-immolation by a young vendor in Tunisia triggering a serious delegitimation of the existing government and the start of the Arab Spring. This is a wrong example. If self-immolations lead to a moral self-reflection amongst the population in whose name the government operates, it may have some importance. In the case of Tibetan self-immolations, since the Chinese government censors all information and because the Han attitude toward the Tibetans ranges from racist chauvinism to paternalism, very few Chinese blame their government for the spate of deaths. On the contrary, if they ever find out about these protests, they are likely to be intrigued by what they consider to be excess religiosity of Tibetans because taking of one`s own life for political purpose is incomprehensible to those who do not understand how unfair their government`s policies are.

Kamna: Do you find Dalai Lama’s response to self-immolations satisfactory?

Dr Anand: The Dalai Lama`s stance on self-immolations is clear. He has expressed his opposition to it in the past. During the recent incidents, he has repeated his position but so far avoided urging Tibetans inside Tibet to resist giving up their life. This is understandable that his urge would increase frustration amongst the radicalised activists who respect him a lot. It has to be realised that the middle-way approach of solving the problem through negotiations has achieved nothing concrete. Even if he had urged, and if the spate of self-immolations had stopped, the Chinese government would have held that as a proof that it was the Dalai Lama who was orchestrating everything in the first place. If the self-immolations continued, Beijing would have said this proves that the Dalai Lama has no influence whatsoever. Personally, I had stated publicly that even at the risk of alienating their followers, it is incumbent upon the religious leaders to request Tibetans not to adopt this dangerous form of sacrifice. It was heartening to see the Karmapa urging the Tibetans that the struggle cannot continue if Tibetans lose their lives. Karmapa thus is stating publicly what the Dalai Lama`s stance has been so far. The media should desist from seeing any chasm between the two senior most religious figures in exile for both share a similarity of outlook. If this form of protest continues, the Dalai Lama should however rethink whether it is not more important to try to dissuade his followers from giving up their lives as a matter of urgency rather than emphasise the causes of this misery - the repressive Chinese policies. These protests raise questions for the exile community in general. Since the Chinese policies are likely to get harsher, is self-immolation an effective form of protest if the aim is not martyrdom by all but the future of the Tibetan people?

Kamna: How should China address the causes of Tibet self-immolations?

Dr Anand: It first needs to acknowledge that its position of pretending there is no problem in Tibet is untenable. It then has to reflect as to why after more than half a century of the so-called `democratic reforms`, more Tibetans respect and venerate the Dalai Lama than ever before. Young Tibetans who have grown up in the Chinese system are often more alienated. Why? This is because while they may see Chinese rule as economically beneficial in absolute terms, relative to other ethnic groups, they feel discriminated against. More importantly, money and development cannot buy people`s loyalty when their dignity is perceived to be trampled. China can bring about a revolutionary change in Tibetan attitude toward Beijing if it starts negotiating sincerely with the Dalai Lama and endeavours to get him back to his homeland. And until that happens, less of security and surveillance and more of empathy and understanding may be helpful.