“Protest or Sacrifice?”

Rebecca Novick, writing on HuffingtonPost, has an interview with Robbie Barnett about the ongoing self-immolation crisis:

Barnett thinks that it is unlikely that these events in Tibet are related to the similar events in Tunisia or Vietnam. “I don’t think that people in Tibet are doing this strategically. People aren’t sitting down saying, “How can we get attention?” I think it comes from a much greater source of frustration and a sense that there is nothing left that they can do.”

He suggests that to understand what is happening in Tibet, we look at the immediate cultural context. All of those who have self-immolated have been young — almost all of them under 30. All are monks, nuns, or former monks.

“This means that they were brought up long after the cultural revolution,” says Barnett. “They have been brought up in a divided period of Tibet when they have this huge amount of rhetoric from the Chinese side, and indeed from many Westerners, that they’re living in a country that is becoming more free, that has more technological and economic progress, and where there is more openness. But actually, they experience the opposite, especially if they become monks and nuns. The tension that they have to live under, the surveillance and the criticism from the state, is far more acute for the monastic community than for most other groups of Tibetans. I think that this exacerbates the feeling of a state that is against them. Also, the way that the Chinese government handled the protests in 2008 made a lot of Tibetans feel that the they are not really part of the state, that state is not really listening to them.”

Says Barnett, “One of the major sources in Tibetan culture today for the practice of self-immolation, especially for those in their 20s or 30s, is not embedded deep in Buddhist history but is apparent in Chinese propaganda. The most famous and influential of all modern films made by the Chinese government to propagate their claim to Tibet was Red River Valley, (Ch. Hóng hégŭ). This 1997 film was little seen outside the mainland, and depicts Tibetans bravely struggling against the British invasion around the turn of the century. Towards the end of Red River Valley, the Tibetan hero wins the battle for the Tibetans by setting himself on fire while taking out the British battalion.”

The fact these these young men and women are monks and nuns or former monks or nuns, Barnett feels, is deeply significant. “They may not have read the actual texts in which these things are described. It’s probably not as literal as that. But they’re drawing on a general idea that is prevalent in Tibetan Buddhist culture about the notion, in the Mahayana tradition, of giving yourself up for a greater ideal. So there’s a very important distinction here between the idea in Buddhism, especially Theravada Buddhism, that you should strive not to do violence to yourself because it will damage your future rebirths, intentioned with the idea that you should be giving up everything to serve a larger ideal, the community, or more likely the religion. This ideal seems to be very strong in the thinking behind these acts.”

On December 6th, Tenzin Phuntsog, another former monk, succumbed to the terrible injuries from setting himself on fire. As no independent media have access to the plateau, we are left to try as best we can to uncover the layers of truth behind actions such as his. Many of those who have done the same called for the return of the Dalai Lama and for Tibetan independence before being engulfed in flames.


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Filed under ethnic conflict, Tibet

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