Senior exiled Tibetan monk urges end to immolations in China

A top monk in exile has appealed to Tibetans inside China-controlled Tibet for a different approach to fighting for independence than taking their own lives.

Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters
Tibetans living in Nepal light candles during a tribute session for fellow Tibetans who killed themselves through self-immolation, at the Tibetan Refugee Center in Lalitpur, Nepal. The number of people in ethnically Tibetan parts of China's southwestern Sichuan Province who have set themselves on fire since March in opposition to religious controls by Beijing, is on the rise.

As China was busy chiding Mongolia for allowing the Dalai Lama to visit this week, one of Tibet's highest monks asked Tibetans to end the recent spate of self-immolations inside Tibet, urging them to find more constructive ways to advance their cause.

The exiled Karmapa (a religious title in Tibetan Buddhism) called the 11 Tibetans – monks, nuns, and former monks –  who have set themselves on fire in protest so far this year in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan brave, saying that “they acted in desperation” against the injustice and repression under which Tibetans have lived under since Tibet’s failed uprising against China in 1959.

"In Buddhist teaching, life is precious. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives. We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet," he said in an e-mailed statement, according to Reuters.

The 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorjee, known as the Karmapa, is the most important Tibetan religious figure after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. He fled China as a boy in 2000 and joined the Dalai Lama among thousands of Tibetan refugees in India. Interestingly, he is the only top Tibetan Lama recognized by both the Chinese Communist Party and by the Tibetans.  

The Dalai Lama recently described China’s policies inside Tibet as “cultural genocide," responsible for the self-immolations. 

China, meanwhile, has repeated the government line that Tibetans are free to practice their Buddhist faith. Authorities then accused the Nobel peace prize laureate of supporting violent separatism and even encouraging the self-immolations by not condemning the actions of those that have set themselves on fire in protest.

Tibet's exiled leaders say that as the protesters set fire to themselves they shouted slogans such as: "Long live his holiness the Dalai Lama," "Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet," and "Freedom for Tibet."

Dibyesh Anand, an associate professor of international relations who studies Tibet at London's Westminster University, says the Karmapa’s statement is not necessarily a departure from the Dalai Lama’s stance. 

“But overall it’s a brave stance given the number of Tibetan activists who are focusing on global solidarity campaigns and treating this as a heroic martyrdom. They may, however, see this as unhelpful. A good leader is one who is willing to go against public opinion, like the Dalai Lama. The Karmapa is showing an understanding for all Tibetans and (is) not afraid to speak (his) mind openly,” says Dr. Dibyesh.

Washington said last week that China's policies have created tensions that threaten the religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people.

“The situation is unbearably difficult, but in difficult situations we need greater courage and determination," said the Karmapa, according to Reuters.

He then appealed to China to "heed Tibetans' legitimate demands and to enter into meaningful dialogue with them instead of brutally trying to achieve their silence."

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