Self-immolations in Tibet must resonate in America

Tibetans around the world are in mourning for the more than 25 Tibetans who have immolated themselves over the past year in protest against China's oppression. These self-immolations are also desperate cries for support from the international community. Americans can help.

Tsering Topgyal/AP
An exiled Tibetan woman holds a representation of a Tibetan flag during a protest to commemorate the Tibetan Women's Uprising Day, in New Delhi, India, March 12.

The 70 Tibetan youths who gather at a Cambridge, Mass., YMCA every week for Tibetan Sunday School normally would have celebrated last month’s festival of Losar, the lunar New Year, with joyful singing and circle dances. But this year, the families shared a quiet potluck lunch. The community had made clear there would be no celebration at a time when Tibetan protesters are immolating themselves at home.

In a dramatic contrast to the festivities welcoming the Chinese New Year, Tibetans in Boston and across the globe have refused to celebrate Losar. Indeed, the Tibetan Government in Exile, based in Dharamsala, India, has requested that there be no celebrations this New Year.

Tibetans are in mourning – not only for the loss of their homeland and the threat to their culture under the Chinese Communist regime, but for the 25 monks, nuns, and lay people who have set themselves on fire over the past year. Eighteen are known to have died. Others have been taken away by the Chinese authorities. Their whereabouts and well-being are not known.

The self-immolations are desperate cries for help to the international community, as well as individual acts of self-determination within an authoritarian system that allows few freedoms for Tibetans and punishes expressions of Tibet’s national identity as “seditious.” The men and women who take this terrible course do so with calls for freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama as their final words.

The Dalai Lama, the internationally revered spiritual leader and recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has not been able to set foot in his homeland since he fled in 1959, following a period of failed détente with the Chinese occupiers of Tibet.

While one may question the tactic, I understand the severe repression that is driving people to pour kerosene over their bodies and light themselves on fire. I am American by birth, but my husband and our family are Tibetan. Every Sunday, I bring our little boy to the YMCA for Tibetan Sunday School. At five years old, he already understands that he is studying Tibetan language not only for his own benefit, but to help preserve Tibetan culture. This is necessary because Tibetan religion and culture are under attack in Tibet.

Tibetans inside Tibet are punished for piety paid to the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans revere as their protector deity and an emanation of the Buddha of compassion. So-called “patriotic education,” which includes denouncing the Dalai Lama and consuming anti-Tibet propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party, was once concentrated in Tibetan monasteries but is now pervasive in almost every sector of society.

In an ironic twist, the Chinese authorities paid Tibetans to celebrate Tibetan New Year this year; the regime is determined to show the world that Tibetans are free, when the reality is the opposite.

Tibetans do not even have the freedom to leave Tibet; the authorities capture and detain Tibetans who try to escape. In 2006, Western mountaineers watched in horror – and captured on video – as Chinese border security forces fired on a group of Tibetans, killing a 17-year-old nun who was trying to escape. Those who are not caught also face huge risks.

My husband was carried across steep Himalayan passes when he was seven years old. His mother died across the border in Nepal after giving birth to a baby girl; the baby died shortly afterward. Our close friend’s sisters paid smugglers to help three of their children escape. The two older boys made it, but the littlest one – just 10 years old – died en route. Heartbreaking as these stories are, they are by no means unique.

Last month, the Obama administration rolled out the red carpet for Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. This may be understandable given US interests in a strong US-China relationship. But this month, with the March 10 anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan uprising and flight of the Dalai Lama, we must remember that Tibetans are giving their lives to protest the desperate conditions in Tibet under Chinese rule.

What can we in the United States do to help?

First, Tibetans need help preserving their language and culture in exile. Many diaspora groups have found ways to pass their language and traditions on to their children; we can share strategies and lend assistance as Tibetans work to do the same.

Second, there is an urgent need for dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese people living in the United States. Tibetans are careful to distinguish between the Chinese government and Chinese people. However, there is a gulf in understanding between the two communities here that must be bridged, and only dialogue can achieve that.

Third, there is a need for US diplomatic initiatives that focus less on pressuring and shaming China into submission and more on helping China recognize that the current situation is not sustainable. Ultimately, the US must help China find a face-saving way to shift policies in Tibet, including serious negotiations with the Tibetan Government in Exile.

Finally, Americans must offer encouragement and hope. However powerful China may be – and however desperate the situation in Tibet is – global forces are pushing toward democracy.

Andrea Strimling Yodsampa is a postdoctoral research fellow with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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