Tibet's Self Murder: Tragedy or Transformation?

If self-immolation is intended as the ultimate rejection of Chinese control, a cry for independence and a declaration of human rights, what does this imply to the outside world? And what can this mean to us?
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By John Halpern and Maria Sliwa

The charred, bodily remains of many self-immolators have been unceremoniously disposed of by local Chinese police, according to reports. Scores of Tibetans have reportedly committed self-immolation in protest against what they say are increasing atrocities committed by China.

What was in the minds of these Tibetans that caused them to set themselves on fire? Were these the final acts of frustration, despair and defiance, as Tibetans say? Or, were they treasonous acts of political perpetrators, as China's officials claim?

If these self-immolations are intended as the ultimate rejection of Chinese control, a cry for independence and a declaration of human rights, what does this imply to the outside world? And what can this mean to us?

At least 41 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since Feb. 27, 2009, and 31 have died, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group in Washington. If these acts were born of extreme desperation, having exhausted all other means of prayer, petition or protest, what else can our response be other than immense sadness and pity?

Passing the Baton

In a previous article, published in The Huffington Post, John Halpern examined the motivations in the hearts and minds of the resolute Hunger Strikers at the United Nations and the impact the self-immolation phenomenon is having toward a desired "Buddhist Spring in Tibet." The strike ended after promises were made by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva (OHCHR).

Halpern's article also traced the edges where religion becomes politics and where a nation's policies transfer to the greater domain of international humanitarian initiatives, intervention and action.

At the core of these world developments and of this story, is the blossoming of a "culture of activism," a rarely addressed but vital subject. This non-governmental force, independently initiated by communities, internationally and functioning within legal boundaries (or not) challenges the frontiers of freedoms of expression, assembly, demonstration, civil liberty and civil rights.

Most importantly, the legacies of the Tibetan self-immolators leave behind some mysterious and delicate questions about religion and its relation to activism:
  • What, if at all, is the religious component of suicide, given the circumstances?
  • Is the act one of blasphemy?
  • When one's religious freedom is terminated and the last of one's acts is suicide, if the mind of the victim is of an altruistic, compassionate nature (albeit desperate and defiant), can self-immolation be considered a spiritual act?
The Tibetan suicides, whether motivated religiously, spiritually, politically or some hybrid of the three, occur after
. They also occur at a time in history when instant activism and international communication are possible wherever a cell phone is in range.

Yet despite modern technology, history reveals that war, invasions and crusades often result in the vanquishing of an entire culture, regardless of the contributions and gifts that culture had made for a greater, human civilization. For Tibetans, the suicides of their nuns, monks and fellow compatriots are not in vain. They are a rallying cry, literally and symbolically, for independence, freedom and cultural survival. In contrast, if Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution implicitly intended to extinguish Tibet's religion, and the source of its identity and culture, then the self-immolations could mean that Tibet, as we know it, is dying.

Encouraging self-immolation for political purposes would be seen as nihilistic, from a Tibetan Buddhist standpoint. But to honor the sacrifices and politicize them is a passing of the baton, spiritually and morally, through invoking their memory and lives: and pragmatically, by casting the self-immolations into the activist and humanitarian arena.

At this point in time, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whose credo, "My religion is kindness," achieved billboard status following his acceptance speech for the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, refuses comment. He no longer considers himself a spokesperson for Tibet, since his March 16, 2011 resignation from political office.

U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Baldwin applauded his decision. "At a time when despots cling to power, as their people yearn for democracy, the Dalai Lama's willful ceding of power is a tribute to his vision to fulfill the aspirations of the Tibetan people and should inspire others around the world," Baldwin said.

As a result, Tibetans are now speaking for themselves. While the Dalai Lama has passed them the baton, is there a correlation between his self-absolving his post and the self-immolations? The connection is tangible. After six decades of Chinese occupation, criticism, speculation and rejection of the Tibetan Government in Exile's policies, within the Tibetan community, has been erupting in many forms. Nevertheless, as Tibetans deliberate and debate these topics within their community, worldwide activism for the Tibetan cause has mobilized millions, Tibetan and non-Tibetan.

"We are raising our voices in support of the fundamental rights of Tibetan people at this critical time. The Chinese Government must immediately and unconditionally release all Tibetan political prisoners," said Laima Andrikiene, a long-serving member of the European Parliament's Subcommittee on Human Rights. "The persecution of Tibetans for their legitimate demands of freedom of religion and their fundamental rights is not only in contradiction with the principles of humanity, but is a clear infringement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights."

Activism and Transformation

It doesn't hurt this movement to have had the Dalai Lama, a favored personality of Hollywood celebrities and a pop-culture icon, champion its cause for 60 years until his strategic resignation in March 2011.

Further, it is a little known fact that the entire Tibetan Diaspora, outside China's borders, numbers only 200,000. Let's think about that. Only 200,000 have managed to mount a formidable, international campaign for their culture's survival against the Chinese leading superpower.

From Feb. 21 to March 22 of this year, four Tibetans (three lay people and one lama) sat in vigil outside the United Nations and were fasting until death against the atrocities. Six thousand of the 8,000 local Tibetan New York region residents joined there for a rally on March 10 to mark the 1959 Lhasa Uprising in Tibet. Numerous "political theater" type demonstrations occurred in India, across the United States, Canada and elsewhere, transforming tactics right out of the Greenpeace, Occupy Wall Street activists' handbooks into a new Post China Oppressed Tibetan lexicon of dramatic protest. Letters and calls flooded news rooms and the U.N. Office for Human Rights at both New York and Geneva branches. Celebrity and activist Richard Gere paid the strikers a visit. Media slowly raised its head and reported. The hunger strikers officially ended their strike following Kofi Annan's public statements and the direct intervention of the OHCHR, with an official visit to the strikers by two representatives bearing a personal letter from Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay. A bottle of orange juice and the promise to investigate the atrocities in Tibet was offered to the strikers at that time. All these activities seemed to occur in a concerted, focused way. Never before had the Tibetan cause achieved such depth at the United Nations. Was history in the making?

When asked about the progress made with China since Pillay's letter, Christine Chung, program officer for the OHCHR sent the following response in an e-mail on June 6:

Special Procedures are mechanisms established by the Human Rights Council to investigate human rights issues. The mandates of the special procedures are established and defined by the resolution creating them. Mandate-holders of the special procedures serve in their personal capacity. The independent status of the mandate-holders is crucial in order to be able to fulfill their functions in all impartiality. They make requests for invitations to visit countries, and it is up to the countries to issue these invitations. The High Commissioner remains very concerned about developments in Tibetan areas of China.

Intervention in Switzerland

An intervention for Tibet occurred during the annual U.N. Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland on July 3rd, before Special Rapporteur Mutuma Ruteere. To initiate a formal investigation inside a country like China, Darfur, Sudan, Bosnia, etc., where reputed human rights violations, atrocities, genocide and torture are reported, official steps called "mechanisms" must be taken both outside, by petitioning the U.N. and officially inside the U.N. Every protest or demonstration, every petitioning phone call, news report, personal letter or other declaration of a violation is recorded and is instrumental to mobilize action by the High Commissioner for an investigation. Finally, it is up to the country in question to allow access by a rapporteur like Mr. Ruteere. The country in question, in this case, is China. According to their letter and our follow up inquiry, the OHCHR has requested China's cooperation. What will China do?

Happy Birthday Dalai Lama

It has been 51 years since the Dalai Lama left Tibet's border, along with 2,000 of his followers. He has never been back. This month he is celebrating his 77th birthday. Whether retired or not, as the Dalai Lama becomes older and his generation begins to die, the plight of his people and their culture weighs heavily in the balance.

Admitting that (pre-1959) Tibet's policies and conditions towards its people were "feudalistic" and "change was needed," the Dalai Lama sights some benefits Tibetan Buddhism and culture have brought to the outside world. "So, the negative, unfortunate events bring benefit to these people. Now, actually not as a religion, but as a philosophy, it seems nowadays some scientists, especially in the field of the brain or human psychology, scientists working in the field of human emotions. It seems in that field, Tibetan Buddhism has some potential to help them. And we also can learn the results of their research, experiments and explanations," says the Dalai Lama in the film "Talking With the Dalai Lama."

But as he enters his 78th year, China is building a series of massive dams, diverting three major rivers from Tibet that feed India, Bangladesh and billions in other South Asian lands, to supply water and hydropower to China's major cities. In addition to the devastation to the high Himalayan plateau and its already rapidly melting glaciers, the consequences to Tibetan nomadic life and its wildlife are deadly.

Will 21st century activists and their technology succeed to supplant human rights and environmental violations in China?

When Politics Become Meditation

Mixing politics with religion, as Tibetan Buddhism instructs, is considered an obstacle to a path of liberation and detachment from worldly matters. However, an advanced Tibetan meditation called Tonglen (exchange) points out that others' suffering (our relatives in former lives) is none other than our own suffering. The target of this meditation is the relationship all living creatures have and the compassionate exchange of others' pain with our cherished joy. How does Tonglen figure in the case of Tibet's self-immolators?

What is the tipping point where empathy transfers to politics and activism, and meditation becomes action?

Would Buddhists consider it sacrilegious to take actions that obstruct human rights violations and ecological destruction in Tibet?

Whether we feel that self-immolation is a bad or a good idea; whether we believe it to be a spiritual or profane thing, the conditions and policies where it is flourishing in China are inhumane and intrepid.

The future of Tibet, its people and culture, are on the chopping block.

John Halpern is a New York based documentary filmmaker and artist. His films "Refuge" and "Talking With The Dalai Lama" explore the cultural journeys of East and West and the evolution of Buddhism in popular, western culture.

Maria Sliwa is an adjunct professor at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, New York University and at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She is founder of Freedom Now News, a human rights news service.

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