On Dec. 19, Tsultrim Gyatso, a monk of Amchok monastery near the sprawling monastic town of Labrang Tashi Kyil in the ethnically Tibetan area of the Chinese province of Gansu, set himself on fire. The 43-year-old monk left behind a handwritten note that serves as his last political testament. The note calls for Tibetan unity and the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland. With this latest self-immolation, since 2009, 125 Tibetans have set themselves on fire. All of them have expressed the same refrain: freedom for Tibet and return of the Dalai Lama.
As the world watches in horror these acts of fiery protest, Tibet experts have huddled into conferences to examine the causes of why Tibet is burning. The causes range from increasing alienation in a rapidly changing society to Chinese migrant workers swamping Tibetan population in the cities and towns on the plateau. Forced resettlement of nomads and rampant mining and the accompanying poisoning of river waters are another source of the bubbling discontent on the roof of the world.
The Chinese authorities are doing everything else except address these deep-seated Tibetan concerns. The authorities accuse the "Dalai clique" thousands of miles on the other side of the Himalayas of inciting self-immolation. They put Tibet under tighter restriction and greater surveillance and bar international media from reporting from the plateau and prevent information of the grim situation from flowing out of Tibet.
Certainly, China's tacit encouragement of unemployed Chinese in neighbouring provinces to migrate to Tibet is an overwhelming fear amongst Tibetans who are increasingly marginalized from the economic boom in their homeland. The main beneficiaries are the migrant Chinese workers. Rampant mining and the damage done to the environment have driven several Tibetans to register their protest by setting themselves ablaze. The Chinese authorities' unrelenting attitude to all these Tibetan concerns also feed Tibetan discontent.
But these miss a critical issue that drives Tibetans to set themselves on fire. The Tibetan people now realize that their hope of seeing the Dalai Lama in their lifetime is receding. This hope of welcoming the Tibetan leader to his homeland was given a big boost when talks were underway between the envoys of the Tibetan leader and the representatives of the Chinese government from 2002 to 2010. Despite the blanket ban on any information on the Dalai Lama, through news outlets from the outside world and by word of mouth, the people in Tibet were aware of these talks. Their hope was that these discussions would bring the Dalai Lama home.
The envoys of the Dalai Lama based their discussions with their Chinese counterparts on their demand for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people under a single administration within the scope of the constitution of the People's Republic of China.
At a press conference organised by the State Council and broadcast live by CCTV on Nov. 10, 2008, China announced its response. Zhu Weiqun, the key Chinese representative at the talks, vigorously and comprehensively rejected the Tibetan demand, pointing to it as Tibetan independence in "disguise."
The collapse of the talks ended the Tibetan people's dream of ever seeing their leader. The following February, Tapey, a monk of Kirti monastery of the ethnic Tibetan area of Ngaba in Sichuan, carrying a Tibetan flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama, set himself on fire. International media reports of the event said police fired at the smouldering figure.
While Tapey's self-immolation sparked of the ongoing fiery resistance, a revolution took place in the world of Tibetan exiles. In 2011, the Dalai Lama separated his spiritual responsibilities from his political obligations and handed his political office to an elected leader. This set of two conflicting emotions in the ranks of the Tibetans in Tibet. The realization that the Dalai Lama is no longer their political leader adds to their dismay and inflames their frustration. On the other hand, the constant refrain of freedom for Tibet among the self-immolators seems to suggest that they too want the same gift of democracy.
All this brings us to the irony of Chinese rule in Tibet. After more than 60 years of its rule in Tibet, China has failed to win over Tibetan hearts and minds. The Tibetan people's devotion to the Dalai Lama remains unshakeable.
The leadership in Beijing should consider this a strength in resolving the issue of Tibet, as suggested by some Chinese scholars within the Party establishment. One such voice on how China should deal with the Dalai Lama is that of Jin Wei, a professor at the Central Party School in Beijing that trains China's future leaders. In comments made in June and October to Asia Weekly, a Chinese-language publication in Hong Kong, Jin Wei said that given the loyalty of the six million Tibetans to the Dalai Lama, China should consider him as "the key to the issue of Tibet." These voices within the Party establishment suggest that the Dalai Lama's active cooperation will bring stability to Chinese rule on the plateau. Though the current leaders' hands are full with more pressing issues, they should take this advice in all seriousness.