Beginning in February 2009, a number of self-immolation incidents have occurred in the greater Tibetan region in China. Since then, at least 116 Tibetan monks and farmers have chosen to set themselves on fire.
These acts are reminiscent of similar incidents that happened in South Vietnam 50 years ago. On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burned himself to death in Saigon in protest of the government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Photos of this dramatic event were circulated across the world, becoming one of the most powerful images of the twentieth century that quickly undermined Diem’s legitimacy and eventually led to his assassination in November.
However, the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet are quite different from those that occurred in Vietnam. In Tibet, most of the self-immolation cases appeared to be spontaneous and each act seemed to be separate from the others. Perhaps as a result, these ultimate sacrifices have failed to convey any consistent or clear message to the outside world. Based on the data compiled by a well-known Tibetan writer and dissident, a Chinese dissident writer and scholar Wang Lixiong identified seven motives from the wills of 26 self-immolators; and the three top motives are “to serve as an act,” to offer their bodies to Dalai Lama, and to express courage and defend dignity. These motives are themselves abstract and ambiguous, but they clearly suggest that self-immolation in Tibet was not always out of desperation or driven by the need to seek political independence or international attention. Sun Yan, a professor at City University of New York, recently quoted two Tibetan scholars and argued that self-immolation was a local phenomenon subject to special regional and religious influences. It was observed by one Tibetan scholar that those who burned themselves were only from four of the 3,600 temples in the greater Tibet region. The other Tibetan scholar noted that most of the self-immolation acts and protests in recent years were associated with the Gulden Temple in Ngawa Autonomous Prefecture of western Sichuan Province.
Unlike what had transpired in South Vietnam, the growing number of self-immolations in Tibet has, thus far, failed to generate significant international attention or cause a major shift in China’s Tibet policy. The United States, while calling on China to permit Tibetans to “express grievances freely, publicly, peacefully and without fear of attribution,” urged Tibetans to “end the(ir) voluntary sacrifice.” At the same time, the Chinese government has accused Dalai Lama of orchestrating the self-immolations, a charge he strongly rejects. Instead of leading to China’s reexamination of its policy toward Tibetans, the protests might have given the hard-liners within the Party full ammunition to resist the reopening of the dialogue with Dalai Lama, and, in context of the rising nationalism, also silenced the domestic intellectuals and the general public for any rational and constructive discussion of the problem.
If the self-immolations have failed to galvanize international support, why hasn’t Dalai Lama used his moral authority to issue a public statement asking for Tibetans to stop the practice? It is widely believed that self-immolation cases would drop significantly if he makes such a move. But Dalai Lama is facing a major dilemma over this issue. As a voice of peace and reason, he privately does not support self-immolation. Indeed, from the outset, he was said to be skeptical of how effective this approach would be. But he has refrained from calling for an end of self-immolation. While he is still the unrivaled spiritual leader among Tibetans, his Middle Way Approach to resolve the Tibetan issue—which does not accept the status quo or political independence—through nonviolent means is increasingly challenged by the young generation, as represented by the Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest NGO in the exile community. They are increasingly frustrated and many have been radicalized by the lack of breakthrough in the negotiation between Dalai Lama’s representative and the Chinese central government that began in 2002. Against this backdrop, self-immolation has been viewed by some as an extreme form of collective frustration and anger among the Tibetans. Unless Dalai Lama is able to offer a viable alternative, his call for ending the practice would likely alienate his supporters, even draw backlash from the radical wing of his own constituency. It’s because of this that he has expressed respect for the courage and motives of the self-immolators, despite his general disapproval of their behavior. But allowing self-immolation to continue is in neither China’s nor Dalai Lama’s interest. For Dalai Lama, it would undermine his moral authority and become a political liability in pursuing his Middle Way Approach. For Beijing, failure to take the issue seriously might cultivate a sense of desperation among Tibetans, which in turn could lead to the escalation of violence against the Chinese rule (as has been found in the northwestern Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region). It’s therefore in both sides’ interest to break the impasse by reopening the dialogue that was stalled in 2010.