DHARAMSALA - Sacrifice of life for Tibet. Under this scarlet red title, the giant poster displays photos of deceased Tibetans.
The poster was put up on a steep road in McLeod Ganj, a village on the slopes of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government in exile, in northern India. The street leads to the Tsuglakhang Buddhist temple, where exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, resides.
Their names are Lobsang Phuntsok, Tsewang Norbu, Sopa Rinpoche and Lobsang Jamyang. On the poster, their faces are encircled by flames, created with naïve yet gutsy computer effects. They are either monks wearing burgundy robes or youths in jeans. The date of their “sacrifice” is noted below their portraits. Since 2009, there have been 72 self-immolations, according to Tibetan website Phayul, which is based in Dharamsala. The large majority of the self-immolations happened in “Inner Tibet,” China’s western Qinghai province – an ethnically Tibetan region known as Amdo to the Tibetans.
During the Chinese Communist Party Congress that was held in November in Beijing, there were at least six new self-immolations.
Among the exiled Tibetans living in Dharamsala, this macabre chronicle is perceived with a mix of passion and pain. “It makes me sick, physically sick,” says Lobsang Yeshi, a monk from the temple of Kirti, in the Chinese Sichuan province. He fled Tibet 10 years ago, across Nepal and India, risking his life in the frozen passes of the Himalayas. His former monastery of Kirti was one of the epicenters of the tragedy. “The Chinese police beat up the crowds watching the immolations,” recalls his friend, Kanyag Tsering. Chinese authorities are so frustrated by the string of suicides that they are offering rewards for anyone willing to give out information on people who are planning to commit suicide by self-immolation. To no avail. Chinese state-run media is also doing its part by minimizing the political aspect of the suicides and giving them personal reasons.
Every single time, the “martyrs” leave a note explaining why they sacrificed their lives: They want “freedom for Tibet” and the “Dalai Lama’s return to Lhassa.” The Dailai Lama left the Chinese-ruled Tibetan capital for Dharamsala in 1959. That 72 Tibetans chose to set themselves alight to get their plea out to the world is interpreted by the Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala as the symbol of the profound crisis that is plaguing the Roof of the World, as Tibet is sometimes called.
“This is a desperate plea, which shows that the occupation and repression of Tibet by China is a failure,” says Lobsang Sangay, the new head of the Tibetan government in exile, who inherited the Dalai Lama’s status as political leader of the diaspora in 2011.
These acts are also seen as a way to raise public awareness about the Tibetan issue. “I believe these immolations are also addressed to Western governments, who are so busy doing business with China that they have forgotten about Tibet, and are legitimizing the Chinese system,” says Tenzin Tsundue. The Tibetan activist is famous for the red headband he wears to every anti-China demonstration in India.
What the sacred texts say
In Dharamsala, added to the suffering is the fact that suicide, which is a novel tool in the Tibetan struggle, betrays the sacred Buddhist principle of non-violence.
Chinese “Tibetologists” are only too happy to qualify these acts as being against the fundamental principles of Buddhism. This point of view is being relayed in Western countries as well, which profoundly irritates Dharamsala. “In the West, people are adhering to a clinical form Buddhism where almost everything is seen as violent,” says activist Tenzin Tsundue.
Dharamsala's Tibetans tell the critics to read what the sacred texts of Buddhism have to say about suicide. In one story, for instance, Buddha gives up his body to feed a starving tigress and her four cubs.
It should be said that the Tibetan struggle hasn’t always been about extreme pacifism – as shown by the CIA-sponsored armed resistance against the Chinese occupation that started in the mid 1950s.
Karma Yeshi, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, is truly annoyed that Tibetans have to justify themselves: “What seems unethical to me is the people living in free countries who judge the act of committing suicide for Tibet.”
“It seems particularly unfair to analyze the act of suicide instead of analyzing the true message behind all this, which is that Tibetans are resisting oppression,” says Dorjee Tseden, head of Students for a Free Tibet India.