When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

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.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Members of the search and rescue team from Miami search the rubble for missing persons at Fort Myers Beach, after Florida was hit by Hurricane Ian.

Sophia Constantino, Laure Gautherin, Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Shlamaloukh!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where North Korea reportedly fires a missile over Japan for the first time in five years, Ukrainian President Zelensky signs a decree vowing to never negotiate with Russia while Putin is in power, and a lottery win raises eyebrows in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Argentine daily Clarin looks at how the translation of a Bible in an indigenous language in Chile has sparked a debate over the links between language, colonialism and cultural imposition.

[*Assyrian, Syria]

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ