They held Tibetan flags, portraits of the Dalai Lama, and flickering candles in the deepening darkness just after sunset. Hundreds of exiled Tibetans – students in blue checked shirts, mothers in traditional dresses guiding toddlers, elderly men and women fingering prayer beads – marched and chanted prayers in the narrow, winding roads of Dharamsala.
In this northern Indian hill town that is home to the Dalai Lama and about 16,000 Tibetan exiles, a series of candlelight vigils last week commemorated three more Tibetans who set themselves on fire to protest repression in Tibet. The latest in a series of unprecedented self-immolators included two young men and a 36-year-old mother of three. “Tibet is burning,” read one banner near the temple. “How many more lives?”
In a further reflection of the deepening despair in Tibet and among exiles, the Dalai Lama’s special envoys to China for the past decade both resigned early this week. Still, the resignations were largely symbolic and have not changed the exile administration’s call for autonomy for Tibet.
The envoys cited concern over stalled talks with Chinese government officials and the “the deteriorating situation inside Tibet since 2008” that have led to self-immolations of 38 Tibetans, 37 of them since March 2011.
Lodi Gyari and Kelsang Gyaltsen cited their “utter frustration” with the lack of response from China’s representatives. “At this particular time, it is difficult to have substantive dialogue,” stated the envoys in a press release from the Tibetan exile administration, which is based in Dharamsala.
India is home to the world’s largest community of Tibetan refugees. Since 2002, Mr. Gyari and Mr. Gyaltsen have led nine rounds of talks with Chinese counterparts in a largely failed effort to promote civil liberties and religious freedom in Tibet. The last time China’s representatives agreed to meet them was in January 2010. As Tibetans express increasing dismay at the stalemate, the self-immolations and resignations highlight a sense of desperation to attract attention to their cause.
“This is no environment for dialogue. A hard-line policy is pursued in Tibet. Under these conditions, there is no point engaging China in a dialogue process,” says Thupten Samphel, director of the Tibet Policy Institute in Dharamsala.
Since a wave of demonstrations swept across Tibet in 2008, Chinese authorities have severely tightened security and stepped up surveillance and arrests of Tibetan protesters and supporters.
Chinese authorities have “resorted to heavyhanded tactics that can only deepen and further fuel resentments,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s secretary general in a statement last year. “They must respect the right of Tibetans to practice their religion and to enjoy their culture.”
Attention to the cause
The envoys’ resignation is not an abandonment of relations with China, says Mr. Samphel. New envoys will likely be appointed later this year after the reshuffle in China’s Communist Party this autumn. “We will see what emerges after the leadership transition in China,” says Samphel.
The former envoys will continue to advise on negotiations with China as members of the Tibetan exile administration’s task force team until then.
The administration emphasized that it remains “firmly committed to nonviolence” and the Dalai Lama’s “middle way approach,” which advocates autonomy for Tibet rather than independence from China.
The Dalai Lama last year voluntarily resigned his political role and fully transferred official political duties to the prime minister of the exile administration, elected by Tibetan exiles around the world.
Lobsang Sangay, formerly a research scholar at Harvard Law School, was inaugurated as the new prime minister for Tibet last summer. China, however, has said it would negotiate only with the Dalai Lama’s envoys, not representatives of the exile administration. Given China's demands, the Dalai Lama will likely still be involved in appointing envoys.
“The only way to resolve the issue of Tibet is through dialogue,” said the exile administration in a statement. “The Tibetan leadership … is ready to engage in meaningful dialogue anywhere and at anytime.”
But without any improvement in the situation in Tibet, the self-immolations are continuing.
Riyko, the 36-year-old mother of three, set herself on fire on May 30 in Rangtang county in Aba, a Tibetan region of Sichuan Province in southwest China. Riyko, who has just one name like many Tibetans, is the fifth woman to self-immolate, including several young nuns.
Most of the self-immolators have been in their 20s or late teens. Monks were the first to self-immolate, but a growing number of laypeople have joined the wave. Two young Tibetan men set themselves on fire in Lhasa on May 27, marking the first self-immolations in Tibet’s capital.
Near Dharamsala’s Buddhist temple, 23-year-old Tsewang Gyatso was one of 160 Tibetan students from a nearby Tibetan school staging a hunger strike last week to protest repression in Tibet. Young men shaved their heads in a signal of solidarity, as did a few female students. Mr. Gyatso fled Tibet five years ago so he could study at Tibetan schools in India.
“Every time we hear about a self-immolation, we feel terrible, horrible, depressed. Sometimes we lose hope for our country,” says Mr. Gyatso. “We are afraid sometimes of what will happen.”
Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala say they feel helpless. “It is in the hands of the Chinese government,” says Lobsang Yeshi, a monk at Kirti Monastery in Dharamsala whose sister monastery in Aba has been at the heart of recent protests and self-immolations. “They’re the ones who can bring some change on the ground.”