Every now and then I see a piece of China journalism that really makes me shake my head. Today it comes from Dibyesh Anand, whose awful piece at The Guardian on the Tibet self-immolation crisis is riddled with errors:
Unfortunately, both the Chinese government and the Tibetan leaders in exile are responding to this human tragedy solely in terms of a blame game.
The Tibetan exile government as well as the activists ascribe self-immolations to the repressive nature of the Chinese rule that leaves Tibetans with no other option but to sacrifice their lives to remind the world of their pain. The Chinese government blames the Dalai Lama and the exiles for encouraging this form of protest to create more instability inside China and generate international sympathy. This politics of blame marshals the same old adversarial vocabulary that has been the hallmark of Sino-Tibetan relations since 1959 and has failed to achieve any accommodation so far.
A blame game! Portraying both sides as unreasonable ideologues is a fun thing to do in the post-South Park era, where a shrug and a “I guess the truth is somewhere in the middle” is considered a valid conclusion to almost any problem. Unfortunately for Dibyesh, though, we don’t have to wonder what motivated them to burn themselves- they’ve all been quite explicit about it, and their statements confirm exactly what the Tibetan exile government is saying. I guess you can put on a tinfoil hat and wonder if the Dalai Lama is secretly dispatching groups of suicide burners into Tibet, but… well, then you’ve got problems beyond just bad journalism skillz.
But at what cost? Does any of this make the key demand of Tibetans inside Tibet – the return of the Dalai Lama and the right to be treated with dignity – closer to fruition?
At that rate, couldn’t the same be said of every act of Tibetan resistance, from writing articles to singing pro-independence songs to burning down Communist Party offices? What’s the other alternative, give up entirely because nothing else was moving their goals concretely closer to fruition? Now Dibyesh sets up a little fallacy that’ll become the crux of the rest of his article:
Self-immolation is not nonviolent. It is, in fact, a violence against oneself.
Wow, you’re like, totally blowing my mind! Honestly though, if he doesn’t understand why self-immolation is lumped in with other nonviolent methods, as opposed to violent resistance, then… well once again, bigger problems than poor journalism. A hunger strike is also ‘violence against oneself,’ so is hunger striking violent resistance? Joining a march knowing that dogs or teargas or guns will be used against the marchers… does that count? His special definition of nonviolence is really problematic.
Should it use the protests to rejuvenate Tibetans and their supporters all over the world, even if it means indirectly encouraging the attractiveness of this heroic sacrifice for the already-suffering young Tibetans inside China? Or should it highlight the continuing oppression of Tibetans inside China but at the same time discourage self-immolation by publicly calling for, and privately working for, the Tibetans in the affected region to treasure their lives for the survival of the nation? The new political leadership under Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the government in exile, has so far been to go for the first option.
However, it is the religious leaders in exile who must take the initiative here. It is they who should go for the second option. The Karmapa, the third highest lama in Tibetan Buddhist hierarchy, has expressed his discomfort with political suicides. Other individual lamas too have expressed their disquiet. But we are still waiting for the Dalai Lama to make his views known on this.
Are we really still waiting for the Dalai Lama to make his views on suicide known? Hint: no, no we are not. Hint 2: Dibyesh Anand doesn’t seem to know what he’s talking about.