Geopolitics

Buddhism And Suicide - Righteous Or Wrong, Tibetans Who Burn Themselves Alive?

Dorjee Rinchen, 58, Oct. 23 self-immolation in Labrang to protest of China's occupation of Tibet
Dorjee Rinchen, 58, Oct. 23 self-immolation in Labrang to protest of China's occupation of Tibet
Frédéric Bobin

DHARAMSALA - Sacrifice of life for Tibet. Under this scarlet red title, the giant poster displays photos of deceased Tibetans.

The poster was put up on a steep road in McLeod Ganj, a village on the slopes of Dharamsala, home of the Tibetan government in exile, in northern India. The street leads to the Tsuglakhang Buddhist temple, where exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, resides.

Their names are Lobsang Phuntsok, Tsewang Norbu, Sopa Rinpoche and Lobsang Jamyang. On the poster, their faces are encircled by flames, created with naïve yet gutsy computer effects. They are either monks wearing burgundy robes or youths in jeans. The date of their “sacrifice” is noted below their portraits. Since 2009, there have been 72 self-immolations, according to Tibetan website Phayul, which is based in Dharamsala. The large majority of the self-immolations happened in “Inner Tibet,” China’s western Qinghai province – an ethnically Tibetan region known as Amdo to the Tibetans.

During the Chinese Communist Party Congress that was held in November in Beijing, there were at least six new self-immolations.

Among the exiled Tibetans living in Dharamsala, this macabre chronicle is perceived with a mix of passion and pain. “It makes me sick, physically sick,” says Lobsang Yeshi, a monk from the temple of Kirti, in the Chinese Sichuan province. He fled Tibet 10 years ago, across Nepal and India, risking his life in the frozen passes of the Himalayas. His former monastery of Kirti was one of the epicenters of the tragedy. “The Chinese police beat up the crowds watching the immolations,” recalls his friend, Kanyag Tsering. Chinese authorities are so frustrated by the string of suicides that they are offering rewards for anyone willing to give out information on people who are planning to commit suicide by self-immolation. To no avail. Chinese state-run media is also doing its part by minimizing the political aspect of the suicides and giving them personal reasons.

Every single time, the “martyrs” leave a note explaining why they sacrificed their lives: They want “freedom for Tibet” and the “Dalai Lama’s return to Lhassa.” The Dailai Lama left the Chinese-ruled Tibetan capital for Dharamsala in 1959. That 72 Tibetans chose to set themselves alight to get their plea out to the world is interpreted by the Tibetan exiles in Dharamsala as the symbol of the profound crisis that is plaguing the Roof of the World, as Tibet is sometimes called.

“This is a desperate plea, which shows that the occupation and repression of Tibet by China is a failure,” says Lobsang Sangay, the new head of the Tibetan government in exile, who inherited the Dalai Lama’s status as political leader of the diaspora in 2011.

These acts are also seen as a way to raise public awareness about the Tibetan issue. “I believe these immolations are also addressed to Western governments, who are so busy doing business with China that they have forgotten about Tibet, and are legitimizing the Chinese system,” says Tenzin Tsundue. The Tibetan activist is famous for the red headband he wears to every anti-China demonstration in India.

What the sacred texts say

In Dharamsala, added to the suffering is the fact that suicide, which is a novel tool in the Tibetan struggle, betrays the sacred Buddhist principle of non-violence.

Chinese “Tibetologists” are only too happy to qualify these acts as being against the fundamental principles of Buddhism. This point of view is being relayed in Western countries as well, which profoundly irritates Dharamsala. “In the West, people are adhering to a clinical form Buddhism where almost everything is seen as violent,” says activist Tenzin Tsundue.

Dharamsala's Tibetans tell the critics to read what the sacred texts of Buddhism have to say about suicide. In one story, for instance, Buddha gives up his body to feed a starving tigress and her four cubs.

It should be said that the Tibetan struggle hasn’t always been about extreme pacifism – as shown by the CIA-sponsored armed resistance against the Chinese occupation that started in the mid 1950s.

Karma Yeshi, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile, is truly annoyed that Tibetans have to justify themselves: “What seems unethical to me is the people living in free countries who judge the act of committing suicide for Tibet.”

“It seems particularly unfair to analyze the act of suicide instead of analyzing the true message behind all this, which is that Tibetans are resisting oppression,” says Dorjee Tseden, head of Students for a Free Tibet India.

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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