Nearly a half a century ago in Vietnam, a photograph taken on a Saigon street shocked people around the world. At the center of the photo was a Vietnamese Buddhist monk sitting uptight in a lotus position; his entire body was engulfed by flames. This image reportedly prompted then President John F. Kennedy to reconsider his Vietnam policy. According to the Telegraph, the President claimed "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion as that one." The monk’s act of self-immolation marked the beginning of a large-scale rebellion against the South Vietnamese regime.
Thích Quảng Đức self-immolating on June 11, 1963 in Saigon
Half a century later, still in Asia, close to 90 Buddhist monks have self immolated in a period of 3 years in China and India. Their cause: end repression inside Tibet, the return of the exiled Tibet spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, and a genuine autonomy for Tibet (some radicals do call for independence for Tibet).
Due to a media blackout enforced in Tibetan-populated regions in China, most self-immolation cases are under-reported and don't attract the world’s attention. The news about self-immolation is often leaked to sources outside China by people inside those regions. Relevant information is very scarce and the region is virtually an information black hole.
A Tibetan man self immolates in India
So many monks, nuns, and lay people have died, but their efforts so far have achieved little. Chinese media is now freer than before, especially the freewheeling discussions on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Weibo users can talk about anything, yet only a handful of people have brought up the self-immolations on their pages. There are a couple of topics in China that are untouchable and Tibet is one of those. Opinion leaders certainly know what goes on in Tibet, but since this is still taboo to discuss, they just bury their heads in the sand. Even Tibetans don’t discuss this on their Weibo pages, because they know someone will knock on their doors once they voice opinions on the Web. Understandably, state-run media rarely report on these incidents. Even if they do, they only blame the Dalai Lama—the evil separatist is behind all the suicides, they say. Therefore, most Chinese people are not aware that in their own country, people are setting themselves on fire out of desperation.
Nobody in China asks about the situation in Tibet; nobody in China brings up the topic voluntarily. This “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy makes the self-immolation movement largely in vain. No matter how many lives are sacrificed, the pressure from the international community on the Chinese government is not gaining momentum.
At the heart of the Tibetan issue is the return of the Dalai Lama, who fled to India after a failed uprising in 1959. Although he left Tibet decades ago, his influence has never waned. The centuries old religion and tradition make him the most revered figure on the Tibetan plateau, which makes it extremely difficult for the Tibetans to believe a different narrative directed by the Chinese government. The communist government has long demonized the Dalai Lama. A standard phrase they use is that he is “a wolf in monk's robes.” Just imagine, when a people’s spiritual leader is branded “wolf," how can a government expect the leader’s followers to heed government calls?
The Chinese government is missing a point. What the government does is pour millions of dollars into Tibetan regions, building homes, schools, railways, and all the things that represent modernity. But these are not the most urgent needs that should be satisfied. Lots of Tibetans’ wish is very simple: to see their spiritual leader come back to their homeland. The government and the Tibetan people are not on the same page. The government’s logic contends that as long as Tibetans’ living standard is raised, there will be no dissent. But the Tibetans care more about their spirituality and religious freedom. They are probably the most devout believers on Earth.
In addition, the Chinese government is reluctant to come to terms with reality. The Dalai Lama has long reiterated on various occasions that he is no longer seeking independence for Tibet. But Chinese propaganda machine ignores this and continues to pump out stories that tell people in China that the Dalai Lama still tries to split the country. This type of propaganda is fanning dangerous nationalism in China; the ideological gap between the Chinese and Tibetans will only grow wider. One recent example of irresponsible reporting on the part of Chinese media is: the popular nationalistic paper the Global Times reported that when visiting Japan, the Dalai Lama used the word “Senkaku” in stead of “Diaoyu” to describe to disputed islands between China and Japan. The report claimed the Dalai Lama sided with Japan on this contentious issue, which caused huge waves of demonstrations this year around China. This false report triggered a renewed round of bashing of the Dalai Lama. But an Associated Press report later found out that the Dalai Lama neither used “Senkaku,” nor he used “Diaoyu,” he simply said the two sides should work together on this issue. This report effectively slammed Chinese media in the face, but it is not known here because this type of report will never be translated and people with knowledge of it are afraid to spread the news. So the government continues its control over the old narrative.
As China grows into an economic powerhouse, it starts to flex its muscles in politics. There had been informal talks between the Chinese government and the Tibetan government in exile. But the negotiations have stalled in recent years. The Chinese government doesn’t recognize the legitimacy of the Tibetan government in Dharamshala and now since China is so influential on the world stage, it probably feels they are too big to sit at negotiation tables with the Tibetans. Analysts say the Chinese government probably wants to wait to tackle Tibetan issue after the Dalai Lama dies in India. The rationale is once the leader of the movement is gone, the issue will be easier to deal with.
For the Chinese government, this is miscalculation of the Tibet situation. Reality has demonstrated that continued demonization of the Dalai Lama, flood of cash into Tibetan region, biased media coverage and ignoring calls for talks will not solve the problems on the ground and the tactics are not winning Tibetans’ hearts and minds. The Chinese can be taught be believe one version of the story, but the Tibetans have proven unruly and stubborn.
There is a window of opportunity that still exists when the Dalai Lama is alive. He has renounced his previous position and the Chinese government should recognize it and welcome it with open arms. As long as the Tibetan issue is discussed under a framework of “one China and Tibet is part of Chinese territory,” the issue is solvable. The Dalai Lama still commands unimaginable influence among Tibetans, if he is allowed to come back and Tibetans are allowed to worship him as they want, he can tell his followers that Tibet will remain part of China. Then problem solved. But it is Chinese government’s distrust that prevents it from reaching a deal with the Dalai Lama. It doesn’t believe what the Dalai Lama says and fears that he may use his influence to split China again once he gets back.
A mechanism must be built for the two sides to talk about the issues. If this burning issue is left unchecked, it will spill over to more Tibetan regions and the protest of self-immolations may take on a different form. Although Tibetans are peaceful people, yet when the effect of region disappears, Tibetans could turn very violent and their natural instincts will be released. The restive Xinjiang region has been a headache for China; it certainly doesn’t want to see a second time bomb in its western frontier.
China, Dalai Lama, India, Tibet