High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser written in March 2014 for the Tibetan service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on April 13, 2014.
Woeser has been a prolific and consistent commentator on the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet. The most recent self-immolation was by 22 year old student Lhamo Tashi and it was a fatal one. It took place on September 17, 2014 in Tsoe County, Gansu Province.
In March 2012, Woeser, along with prominent Tibetans Arjia Rinpoche and Gade Tsering made a public appeal to all Tibetans for an end to the self-immolations. In an essay published later that year, Wang Lixiong wrote that in his opinion their attempt to halt the self-immolations failed “because the self-immolators did not know what they could do by being alive, but felt that self-immolations might at least break the prevailing silence. Therefore, these brave Tibetans need to be told what else they can do besides self-immolation, not asked to remain alive to merely remain mute spectators waiting in vain.”
“Self-Immolations Are A Kind of Political Resistance”
It needs to be clarified that the real meaning of self-immolation is different from the term’s literal meaning. If one only considers its literal meaning, one gets a distorted picture. Many people think of self-immolation as suicide because it is an act of setting oneself on fire. But if the ultimate goal is to die, well, there would be many other ways to do it, why would they choose to gradually burn every single cell of their bodies? This is precisely where we have to look for the meaning of self-immolation: self-immolations are the strongest and most intense form of resistance and a way to regain one’s own pride, they are carried out by ordinary people who are unable to bear the most extreme pain.
Hunger strikes have already been a widely-recognised and well-respected form of resistance, self-immolations, on the other hand, are skirted. The reason is that burning to death represents a kind of pain that people cannot bear, not even in their imaginations. But people do not actually have to bear this pain themselves, all they have to do is to have the courage and face the self-immolations; then they will see the tiny and fragile bodies of self-immolators that have the courage to face up to and resist against this enormous tyrannical system.
Since 2009, 134 Tibetans have self-immolated; apart from two women from Yushu who self-immolated because their houses were demolished (these kinds of self-immolations have happened many times in China), all other cases did not occur out of personal interest. That the term “self-immolation” is used to describe these acts for the public good just shows how poor our language is. Hence, should we not perhaps invent a new kind of word to describe self-immolations in Tibet? Otherwise, how can they be distinguished from all other kinds of self-immolations? On the restricted Chinese internet, young Tibetans use “offering lights” to refer to those Tibetans who sacrifice their lives or “igniting a light” as a metaphor to refer to new cases of self-immolation, giving them a religious meaning of sacrificing one’s life for the common good.
Just like one day in 1963, when the 67-year-old senior monk, Thich Quang Duc, self-immolated in Vietnam, leaving behind the following last words: “Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to the President… to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.” Several months later, another 6 monks self-immolated in the streets of Vietnam.
A senior monk commented: “The media calls this suicide, but this is not essentially suicide… the last words left behind by self-immolators all express that their goals were to alert and move the hearts of the oppressors, and to waken the world to pay attention to the oppressed people of Vietnam… to use self-immolation as a means to express one’s deepest desire cannot be called destructive, on the contrary, it is constructive; suffering people’s bodies pass away. It is not self-destruction.”
For me, Tibetan self-immolations are not suicide. They are a continuation of the mass protests that spread across Tibet in March 2008. The 2008 protests were the biggest and most far-reaching protests since the Dalai Lama was forced into exile in March 1959. They show that over the past half a century, the Chinese government has never been able to win over the hearts of the Tibetan people. Tibetans are still resisting against Chinese rule. The reaction of the Chinese has, of course, been violent and oppressive, as always. Their propaganda machinery has labelled Tibetans as “terrorists” and “separatists”; their resistance has been distorted and portrayed as wanting to destroy the Beijing Olympics and damage the image of a rising China. This in turn has created strong antagonistic feelings and even hatred among Chinese against Tibetans.