Igniting the Embers* of Independence

In mid-December last year, Mohamed Bouazizi, a humble Tunisian street-vendor of fruits and vegetables, set himself on fire to protest the confiscation of his produce and the daily harassment and humiliation inflicted on him by police and local officials. His act set off demonstrations and riots throughout Tunisia which intensified following Bouazizi's death on January 4, leading the authoritarian regime and its leader to flee the country after 23 years of repressive and corrupt rule.

This and the events that followed, called the "Jasmine Revolution" or the "Arab Spring", resulted in a peaceful revolution in Egypt, an armed uprising in Libya (resulting in the fall of its dictator), civil uprisings in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen, and protests in Israel, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and elsewhere, that have yet to run their courses.

Just this year, in Tibet, starting twelve days after the death of Mohamed Bouazizi, we have had nine self-immolations -- so far. And there are unsettling rumors of more to come. The latest took place two days ago. A nun, Tenzin Wangmo, age 20 from Ngaba, set fire to herself on October 17. An earlier self immolation took place after I had just written the initial draft of this piece. The immediacy of it was unsettling. On October 15, 11:50 local time, a former monk of Kirti monastery Norbu Damdul set himself on fire in the central town of Ngaba. "Engulfed in flames, Norbu Damdul raised slogans demanding 'Complete Independence for Tibet' and 'Return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet'".

Two self-immolations took place a week ago, on October 7 "At around 11:30 a.m. Tibet time today, Choephel, age 19 and Khayang, 18, monks of Kirti monastery, set themselves ablaze in the central town of Ngaba district". "Eyewitnesses have told sources in exile that as they were engulfed in flames they called for Tibetans to unite and rise up against the Chinese regime and raised slogans for Tibet's freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama from exile."

Three days before that, on October 3 at around 2 p.m. local time, a very young novice monk "Kesang Wangchuk walked out onto the main street of Ngaba town holding a photo of the Dalai Lama and shouting slogans protesting Chinese rule over Tibet. He then set himself ablaze."

Last month, on September 26, two teenage monks of Kirti Monastery, Lobsang Kalsang, and Lobsang Kunchok, both around 18 years of age "set themselves on fire in an anti-China protest in the central town of Ngaba. Their whereabouts and condition are not yet known."

The month before, on August 18, 29-year old Tsewang Norbu, a monk from Nyitso monastery in Tawu, died after setting fire to himself and calling for "freedom of worship, freedom for Tibet, and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet".

At the beginning of this year on March 16, afternoon, Phuntsog, a 16-year-old monk at Kirti monastery set himself on fire.

Readers should be reminded that two years earlier in February 27, 2009, A Kirti monk called Tapey was shot by police when he set himself on fire. The police immediately took him away. He is said to have survived but his whereabouts are unknown.

All reports and comments in the exile Tibetan world have stressed the "tragic", "terrible" "heartbreaking" and "desperate" aspects of these actions. Calls for international condemnation and UN intervention have been made by various political and activist organizations as well as foreign support groups. A number of demonstrations, vigils and hunger-strikes have taken place. Some concerns have been expressed that more self-immolations could happen and that a way to prevent or at least discourage such actions should be sought.

All these statements and acts of concern and support have been tremendous, and in fact such responses are crucial to make the world take notice of what is happening in Tibet. They only become somewhat misguided, even unconsciously condescending, if supporters fail to overcome their first natural reaction of dismay and horror, and are unable to view the sacrifices of the monks in the way that those young men wanted them to be seen: as calls to action for the cause of a free and independent Tibet. It is also counterproductive if the actions of these young men are misinterpreted as merely a call for human rights, religious freedom or even "autonomy" within the PRC as has been most bizarrely reported in the British paper, The Independent.

There can be no doubt that the men acted not out of despair, not because they could not go on living any longer, and not because they thought it was all over for the Tibetan freedom struggle. The reports on the immolations have been sketchy but what is clear is that they are all clear acts of political protest against Chinese rule in Tibet, with slogans calling for "Tibetan freedom and independence" (bhod rawang-rangzen) for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The last demand must also be understood in its proper historical and political context, since the Dalai Lama has always been regarded, first and foremost, as the sovereign ruler of independent Tibet, not only by those who acknowledge him as their spiritual leader, but by Tibetans from other Buddhist sects, by Bonpos, Tibetan Muslims and Christians who have their own distinct spiritual leaders.

It is more than likely that the young men were inspired, as were nearly everyone in the Tibetan world then, by the sacrifice of Thupten Ngodup, former paratrooper and one of the liberators of Bangladesh, who set himself on fire in April 1998. He did it stone cold. He was fit and healthy, of cheerful disposition, with no money problems, and living in a free country, in a small meditation hut surrounded by flowers. But he did it for bhod rawang-rangzen, for Tibetan freedom and independence.

The eight young men must also have heard or read of Mohamed Bouazizi, especially after Chinese bloggers and activists, at the beginning of this year, spread the news of the Arab Spring throughout the PRC and began calling on the Chinese people to start their own Jasmine Revolution. Fifteen foreign journalists were arrested on March 6, in "the biggest showdown between Chinese authorities and foreign media in more than two decades." This call for revolution spread to about thirteen cities (as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan) and definitely alarmed China's leaders. The Atlantic quoted Hilary Clinton: "They're worried, and they are trying to stop history, which is a fool's errand. They cannot do it. But they're going to hold it off as long as possible." The New York Times reported that Beijing police had banned the sale of jasmine flowers at various flower markets, causing wholesale prices to collapse. Subsequently thirty-five prominent human rights activists were arrested, the highest-profile arrest being that of the courageous and protean artist Ai Weiwei.

The self-immolations of the eight young monks were revolutionary acts of ultimate sacrifice to rouse the Tibetan people to action, in much the way as Mohamed Buazizi's self-immolation, woke up the oppressed people of the Middle East from many many decades of fear, apathy, cynicism and weariness -- and goaded them to overthrow their dictators, supreme leaders and presidents-for-life.


*Tibetan historians use the expression "nurturing the embers of the dharma" (tempae mero solwa) to describe the lonely but heroic struggle of a few dedicated scholars and teachers who kept the Buddha dharma alive in Tibet after the breakup of the Tibetan Empire, and eventually brought about the second or "later transmission" (tempa chidhar) of Buddhism to Tibet.