The Journal for the Society for Cultural Anthropology has devoted an issue to the Tibetan self-immolations, with twenty essays by various Tibetologists and Tibetan writers. The sidebar on their site has the full index, but here are some of the most important bits, with Tsering Shakya first:
Self-immolation as a form of protest is not intrinsically a Buddhist act any more than suicide bombing is an Islamic act. What links the current incidents to religion is that most of the Tibetans who have committed self-immolation have been monks, former monks or nuns. Their actions were not an obeisance to religion or the performing of virtue. Rather, they signify something entirely different: they are a product of “rage,” induced by daily humiliation and intolerable demands for conformity and obedience. Religious figures in Tibet have been particularly subjected to the discipline of patriotic education and the campaigns opposing the so-called “Dalai clique.” These campaigns, viewed by the monks as a regime of degradation, require them to endlessly feign compliance, obliging them to demonstrate repeatedly their patriotism and fidelity to the Communist Party. That is not an easy task to sustain, and we see that it has finally become something they refuse to do. As Hannah Arendt put it, rage arises not as a result of poverty but “when our sense of justice is offended.” People react with rage “where there is reason to suspect that conditions could be changed and are not.”
The Chinese writer Wang Lixiong, who has sought to articulate a way for Tibetan protests to move beyond self-immolation, has stated that the self-immolations have indeed been effective: they have galvanized Tibetan sentiments and greatly strengthened the Tibetan sense of unity in the face of rule by China. This reflects a far clearer understanding of the situation than ideas of Tibetan self-immolation as a futile attempt to move bureaucratic hearts in China or as an act of hopeless despair, rooted as they are, in their advocates’ parochial projections. (Of course, it should go without saying that, contrary to what is believed in some circles, Tibet and the Tibet issue do not occupy the thoughts of most people in China.) In the face of wide, positive sympathy and support in Tibet for those who have committed self-immolation, the “un-Buddhist” critique has not gained traction. One anonymous Tibetan blog comment is perhaps more typical of the way self-immolation has come to be viewed inside Tibet; certainly more typical than the projections of other observers might lead one to believe: “Might I ask if we, who scream when we scrape our hands even slightly, would have the guts to sacrifice our lives for the cause of freedom?… Yes, when I think of the heroes and heroines who have committed self-immolation I am ashamed of my inherent weakness, cowardice and uselessness.”
Both Wang Lixiong and Tsering Woeser have called for Tibetans to move beyond self-immolation as a tactic. At the same time, neither has denigrated those who have committed such acts, let alone characterized them as acting contrary to Buddhist principles. But in a milieu effectively bereft of civil-society options for organizing peaceful protest and dissent it has been difficult to conceive of a viable alternate tactic. Self-immolation is a solitary, individual act of protest that can be undertaken in an instant with little chance for the authorities to prevent it, or to shut out the protester’s message. An end to the current wave of self-immolations will likely require an alternative tactic capable of comparable effect or the ceding of adequate space for dissent on the part of the authorities.
Outside of China, there has been a deepening and evolving understanding of the self-immolations. Initially both the press and expert analysts tried to find their logic in religious and cultural traditions instead of looking at the self-immolations themselves. However, after it became apparent that there is no Tibetan equivalent to the twenty virgins in heaven, the immolations were then seen by some as possible acts of individual failure and desperation, or stemming from simple rage against repression. Both of these explanations have proven unsatisfactory and do not conform to the testament left behind by Lama Sopa, nor to statements made by nineteen year old female student, Tsering Kyi. Days before her self-immolation, Tsering Kyi reportedly told friends that “we need to do something for Tibet.” In his audio testament, Lama Sopa states clearly that he is acting “not for personal glory but for Tibet and the happiness of Tibetans.”
The most striking characteristic of the state media response to the recent series of self-immolations in Tibetan regions has been its relative silence. Despite the length of these protests and the gravity of the events at hand, reports have been rare, and when they have appeared, they have generally been quite clumsy. Even the Global Times (Huanqiu shibao), known for its characteristically outspoken state-nationalist viewpoint, seems to have stumbled in search of words to characterize recent events, claiming in an odd editorial that there is “no need to sweat over minor unrest.” The state media, increasingly adept at incorporating all types of events into official discourses, appears to be at a sudden loss for words.
The ability of the events of 2008 to be harnessed to a simplistic state-nationalist discourse of “ungrateful, violent Tibetans” and “silly Westerners” made it an almost obsessive object of discussion that spring and summer. By contrast, the recent series of self-immolations leave everyone, no matter one’s position, at a loss for words. They are immensely public acts of protest that communicate a meaning not at all easy to remold. These acts do not yield to simple narratives but instead compel narratives themselves to yield; they are a suffering that makes counterarguments futile. Attempts to put an anti-CNN-spin on events, such as the recent state-run website Tibet.cn’s decision to cite anonymous “netizens” expressing their hopes that the Dalai Lama might self-immolate, appear immensely petty by comparison. When people are setting themselves on fire, such responses simply fail.