With two more Tibetans self-immolating this week we are again seeing a despairing response from within some sections of the exiled Tibetan community, people are asking in what way are such sacrifices securing either the attention of a largely indifferent world, or advancing the cause of Tibet’s independence struggle. These are entirely understandable reactions to what are painfully distressing events, yet in a key sense they are the wrong questions, as they are based upon an erroneous understanding that these actions seek a global response, an international condemnation to China’s tyrannical occupation of Tibet. Sure, it would be extremely welcome to see a concerted and forceful response from the international community to the horrors of China’s human rights atrocities against Tibetans. Yet the political and economic interests of nations ensures a shameful appeasement of China, faces turning away from the decades of suffering endured by Tibet, relieved only by platitudes and hand-wringing. Recall the assurances of the United Nations to the Tibetan hunger-strikers earlier this year? In which, fearful of the prospect of Tibetans starving to death on its New York doorsteps, the UN promised a detailed and urgent investigation into China’s actions in Tibet. Thus far silence, evasion and inaction has followed. So the fiery sacrifices of these Tibetans, even were they seeking international support for Tibet, would; due to the marble-heart of realpolitik, remain ignored or at best offered disingenuous words of concern, measured so as not to offend China.
It is fatuous to even consider that these actions are in themselves trying to secure independence for Tibetans, which inevitably invites the questions, what is the purpose of such sacrifice and who is the intended audience? Perhaps these self-immolations are more accurately understood as expressions of resistance, in which it is the action itself that is the protest, a declaration of Tibetan independence and loyalty to the Dalai Lama. They also defy China’s occupation and are a dramatic reminder that the spirit for Tibet’s national freedom and identity remains undiminished. The sight of Tibetans engulfed in flame, holding aloft the symbol of Tibet’s independence must also have an incredible impact upon the local Tibetan community where they occur, no doubt generating sadness and anxiety but also reinforcing a sense of solidarity, national identity and encouraging a determination to oppose China’s occupation.
They are after all heroes, but the political nature and objectives of their protests sits uneasily with the current position of the Tibetan Administration, keen to avoid mention of Tibet’s independence and desperately trying to assure China that it seeks only improved autonomy under Chinese rule. Aware though of the profound support and emotion within the Tibetan Diaspora towards those who self-immolate, it has to be seen to show respect and honor such sacrifice. Yet it does so by avoiding any mention of the political demands made by such Tibetans and chooses to represent their actions as a response to China’s policies, or as the only, desperate, means of protest due to the intensity of China’s suppression of Tibetans. While there maybe a shadow of truth in that for the most part this is a political and cynical version of events, designed to dilute, evade and ignore the central objective common to the majority of such protest, Tibetan independence.
Let us journey to an alternative landscape for a moment, a flight of fancy in which these Tibetans are embraced as they should be by their exiled Administration, as inspiring martyrs to Tibet’s true cause, a reminder to Tibetans everywhere that the only solution that guarantees genuine protection and respect of Tibet’s culture and national identity is the restoration of its independence. Imagine the effect upon the exiled Tibetan community if their sacrifice was seen, not only in terms of tragedy and pain, but as selfless inspiration and courage. Would such a re-interpretation be followed by questions as to why they are offering their lives to asserts Tibet’s rightful national independence yet in exile their Administration is surrendering Tibetan nationhood in exchange for Chinese rule?
These individuals are sending an immensely powerful message, not to the corrupted offices of the UN or Washington DC, but to fellow Tibetans, is their overtly political sacrifice being understood or is it getting lost in the emotional response, the massed prayers and despair and frustration felt among exiled Tibetans? It has been noted by others that the best way to respect the sacrifices made by these Tibetan martyrs is to actively support the cause they gave their lives for, that means advocating, protesting for Tibetan independence. Yet even as the harrowing images of self-immolation emerge from Tibet, and reports document such protests demanding Tibet’s national freedom, the momentum to promote the policy which would accept Chinese rule with limited and cosmetic improvements in autonomy goes on regardless, trampling over the charred remains of Tibet’s heroes.