CHONG ZI LIANG
It is an eloquent testimony to our skewed priorities that we in South Asia devote reams of newsprint on the American presidential election and ignore the spate of self-immolations in Tibet. From February 2009, in 63 instances of self-immolations, 52 Tibetans have died. Those who survived were whisked away to hospitals, from where most of them never returned.
This tragic but unique form of protest against the Chinese repression has escalated over the months: 49 Tibetans have already set themselves ablaze this year, a shocking increase from the 13 who self-immolated last year. Most of them were between 17 and 30 years old, testifying to the persistence of their alienation despite the concerted attempts of the Chinese government to compel them to integrate into its system.
Most chose to set themselves ablaze outside famous monasteries or public places. Their choice of venue suggests the self-immolators consciously sought to turn their death into a public spectacle, in the hope of conveying to both the people and police the meaning of their action. Yet the audience could not interpret their action in any way other than as a protest against the Chinese government, for they shouted, as they turned into a raging ball of fire, slogans for freedom or demanding the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.
Some self-immolators chose to record their statements before walking to their chosen site of death. In their English rendering, these testimonials are remarkable for the absence of fear of death in them and their expression of anguish at the repression their people.
I accessed a few of these suicide notes, which almost always articulate concern over the cultural identity of Tibetans and wish a long life for the Dalai Lama. Typical is the statement Nangdrol recorded before self-immolation on 19 February: "Wear Tibet if you are Tibetan;/Moreover, you must speak Tibetan;/Never forget you are Tibetan; …/Restraint from taking lives of living beings/ May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live for many ten thousand years."
Three additional conclusions can be drawn from these recorded statements. One, there exists at least a rudimentary network to record and transmit the statements of self-immolators worldwide. Two, Tibetans don't consider self-immolation as sin, it is in fact extolled. Three, each self-immolator seems to inspire others to emulate him or her.
All this has prompted many to demand that the Dalai Lama should express his disapproval of self-immolation, believing such a proclamation could dissuade those contemplating to voluntarily embrace fiery death. Others, like Stephen Prothero, a scholar of religion in Boston University, have questioned the silence of westerners over self-immolations in Tibet, particularly as suicide bombing seems to repulse them. This is precisely the logic the Chinese have extended to dub self-immolation as terrorism and claim it violates the tenets of peace and compassion enshrined in Buddhism.
Indeed, both the suicide bomber and the self-immolator believe death is the only recourse left for them to secure justice. Both choose to die because they wish through their sacrifice to provide a better future for their people. Yet there is a vital difference between the suicide bomber and what cultural theorist Terry Eagleton calls the martyr, or the person who fasts to death for a cause. In a piece for The Guardian in 2005, Eagleton wrote, 'The martyr bets his life on a future of justice and freedom; the suicide bomber bets your life on it. But both believe that a life is only worth living if it contains something worth dying for.'
The self-immolator is as much Eagleton's martyr, as both kill themselves without harming anyone else through their act. Indeed, the statements of Tibetans who burnt themselves to death do not preach vengeance against their tormentors. They offer their bodies as a voluntary sacrifice for preserving the cultural unity of Tibet. It means, so to speak, walking the path of Buddha, one of whose incarnates offered his body to a famished lioness who was about to feast on her cubs. Through self-immolation the Tibetans are symbolically saying that because of the Chinese repression and the Dalai Lama's exile, they are as alive as a dead body waiting to be cremated.
Thus, in setting their bodies on fire they are in reality cremating themselves – and also mocking their tormentors who, unable to establish supremacy over the hearts and minds of Tibetans, forever seek to control their bodies. The Tibetan self-immolator, like Eagleton's suicide bomber, defies power by simply learning to overcome his or her fear of death. Consequently, the capacity of political power to coerce people stands undermined. About suicide bombing, Eagleton says, 'It proclaims that what your adversary cannot annihilate is the will to annihilation.'
In its failure to overpower the Tibetan's will to annihilation, as also in its inability to convince the Tibetan to live, the Chinese regime is rendered a bit more illegitimate every time a monk sets himself ablaze.
The feared erosion of their legitimacy prompts the Chinese to take retributive action against the monasteries to which the dead were affiliated. As for the rest of us in the world, we prefer silence to the grim prospect of China directing its wrath against us or depriving us of its money to develop our economy. The raucous American election circus helps to muffle the murmur of our conscience.
Ajaz Ashraf has worked for India's The Pioneer and Hindustan Times newspapers. For the last 12 years he was deputy editor at Outlook magazine.