The self-immolator and the suicide bomber both believe death is the only recourse left to secure justice
It is conceivable a Tibetan could in the future set his or her body on fire, in one of those Western countries whose fate it is to live in unrelenting media spotlight. It is also possible to imagine what the response to such an act would be: frenzied coverage of the incident by the media, a crescendo of criticism against Beijing, and prominent voices demanding the Dalai Lama issue a statement condemning self-immolation as a form of protest. You can only hope the world won’t have to witness the horror.
Yet, it is an idea which is perhaps incubating in the Tibetan diaspora deeply frustrated at the world’s indifference to self-immolations in their homeland. In India, home to the Tibetan government in exile, no prominent leader, not even from the opposition, nor the palpably anti-China media in India has been unduly bothered by the rising number of Tibetans setting themselves on fire.
On 12 February, 25-year-old Duptse turned himself into a raging fireball
at the Boudha temple in Kathmandu. A week previously, Lobsang Namgyal became the 100th person to commit self-immolation since 2009. The current total: 102 self-immolations and 85 dead. It’s an overwhelmingly a movement of the young: 77 of the 102 self-immolators were between 15- 29.
It seems logical for Tibetans
to seek more spectacular settings for self-immolation, for their unique form of protest not only seeks to defy Chinese rule, but to also persuade through their suffering an indifferent world of the need to mount pressure on Beijing to grant them their cultural and religious rights.
These twin messages of defiance and a cry for support constitute the meaning of almost every Tibetan self-immolation, invariably carried out outside famous monasteries or public places, thus providing the opportunity for capturing on camera or video the horror of their burning to death. No doubt, the downloading of these ghastly scenes on the internet suggests a network of activists hoping to exploit self-immolations for garnering support for the Tibetan cause.
Beijing has grasped the message of defiance implicit in the self-immolations, evident in its decision to flood Tibetan towns with troops, and crack down after every suicide by burning. But such defiance, Tibetans know, will not acquire a salience until the international community is repulsed into overlooking the economic underpinnings of its relations with China. Might not then it occur to the Tibetans to carry directly their message of self-immolations to the cities in the West, much in the way Islamic suicide bombers did with their horrific methods?
Indeed, the self-immolator’s psychology closely resembles the suicide bomber’s. Both believe death is the only recourse left to secure justice. Both choose to die because they wish through their sacrifice to provide a better future for their people. Yet, what distinguishes the suicide bomber from what cultural theorist Terry Eagleton calls the ‘martyr’, or the person who fasts to death for a cause or demand, is that the latter doesn’t injure or kill others, just as the self-immolator doesn’t.
Nevertheless, considering the escalation in self-immolations in Tibet, it seems there is an inexhaustible supply of people waiting, just as the earlier generation of suicide bombers spawned more deadly imitators. At the apathetic response of the world to their plight and Beijing’s refusal to accept their key demands, is it not possible for the potential self-immolator to reinterpret the Tibetan Buddhism creed of non-violence, much the way the Quranic injunction against suicide was?
Tibet's burning issue