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Tibet: How Many More Sacrifices?

Journalist Ursula Gauthier managed to get past Chinese roadblocks to get into Tibet, where she met the families and friends of those who have sacrificed themselves by immolation to protest against Chinese rule.

Tibetan students protesting in Chabcha against the use of Chinese in school in 2010 (SFTHQ)
Tibetan students protesting in Chabcha against the use of Chinese in school in 2010 (SFTHQ)
Ursula Gauthier

QINGHAI - At the end of the veranda, below the big, smiling portraits of the Dalai Lama hanging on the walls, an altar has been created. The crowd, squeezed together in the confined space, is absolutely silent. Glowing with fervor and pride, their gazes are fixed on a small photo which has been placed on the altar on top of a pile of ceremonial scarves: dressed in a white buttoned-up shirt, hair sensibly parted to the side, a delicate face looks timidly out at the visitors who have come from all over the Tibetan highlands.

Dressed in their Sunday best, the procession weaves its way along the dirt track to Shabrang, a tiny hamlet lost in the middle of this endless landscape. They climb the muddy track between the mud brick walls and thatched roofs, before placing their presents at the foot of the altar with reverence. Bricks of tea, bags of grain, slabs of butter… the person in charge of the offerings makes a note when money is given. These are very generous offerings, given the poverty of the region. The visitors then join the rest of the crowd assembled in front of the modest altar dedicated to Sonam Dargye and recite prayers in honor of this peasant who has become the people's hero.

Sonam is the thirtieth Tibetan to set himself on fire. Unlike most of those who went before him, he was not a monk but an illiterate peasant who couldn't afford to send his four children to school. At 44 years old, he had normal worries, such as how he was going to build a house for his eldest son who was ready to get married. To pay for the construction, he made prayer wheels at the Rongwo monastery in the neighboring town of Rebkong.

And then, on March 17, everything changed. Sonam knelt in front of a portrait of the Dalai Lama, before drinking petrol. At the foot of the monastery, he set fire to himself while crying out: "We want His Holiness the Dalai Lama back!" To prevent policemen seizing hold of him, he had wrapped his torso in petrol-soaked cotton and barbed wire. A worker who was passing by filmed the whole scene on his mobile phone. The video is hard to watch: it shows Soman trying to lift his fist – as the other fire matyrs have done – while the fire consumes him.

In shock, passers-by carried his charred body to the main square of the monastery which is where, three days earlier on March 14, a friend of Sonam's, the monk Jamyang Palden, had carried out the same radical act.

Martyrs or "terrorists'?

Rebkong is still in shock. Unlike the neighboring province of Sichuan, where this type of incident has been happening for over a year, Rebkong had not experienced an immolation until March 14, 2012, the anniversary of the uprising of Lhasa in 2008. "The main square filled up in the blink of an eye," recalls a worker. "A large contingent of police arrived, but there were so many of us that they gave up. It was the elderly monks who kept things under control. They performed a solemn public funeral, and then everyone climbed to the top of the hill to attend the cremation. People were so moved…" According to witnesses, the crowd swelled to 8,000 people – the biggest gathering ever seen in this town of 80,000 inhabitants.

Why did Soman Dargye carry out such a radical act? Was it in anger? Provocation? Desperation? In his modest house in Shabrang, the question remains unanswered. His wife, Dolkar Kyi, has been suffering from cardiac problems since the incident. Squatting on the platform which serves as her bed, a drip in her wrist, she barely has the strength to greet the flood of visitors. Her four children – the youngest is 6 years old – only speak the local dialect. It is a relative, an energetic 50-year-old, who answers people's questions, whilst avoiding anything that could be vaguely problematic. "My cousin was poor, but money was not a concern for him," he said. "He was very pious and often went on pilgrimages." According to him, nobody can describe Sonam's state of mind, as nobody knew of his plan. When it comes to expressing what Sonam's relatives are feeling – approval? Pride? – he is even more evasive. "We're sorry, these are things that we can't talk about…"

For Beijing, confronted by this unexpected form of protest – as unique as it is radical – the Tibetans who have self-immolated are simply "terrorists' manipulated by foreigners. The care they take not to hurt anyone else is irrelevant. Their relatives all risk being charged as accomplices. The Tibetan regions of Sichuan province are run by authoritarian politicians who continue to use oppressive methods which hark back to the times of the Cultural Revolution. Here, anyone who survives after self-immolating is treated like a criminal. Half of all the immolations have taken place in Aba, a city of 20,000 inhabitants towards the west of Sichuan province. Every case is followed by arrests, which leads to further immolations in protest. It's a vicious cycle, which forecasts a very bleak future.

A culture eradicated

The same black cloud hangs over Tongde, a town 200km southwest of Rebkong, where on March 16 the police reacted to a demonstration of about a thousand people by throwing grenades into the middle of the crowd. It is impossible to find out any more details, but according to a young monk from in a nearby monastery, there were several wounded. "We also protested here. What do we want? Freedom. We are not free. We cannot practice our religion freely. We cannot meet our spiritual leader. We cannot study our language in schools, where more and more classes are taught in Mandarin. We cannot even set fire to ourselves without putting our family or monastery in danger…" The young man fears that the province of Qinghai will implement repressive policies that have been tried and tested elsewhere in the Tibetan regions. "In Lhasa, a monastery cannot have more than 30 monks, whereas there were thousands of us in the past! They want to slowly kill off the monastery system which is the pillar of our existence…"

In Rebkong, where the Party Secretary takes a more flexible approach based on dialogue with the head lamas, they have managed to avoid an explosion of violence following the two recent sacrifices, despite the wave of emotion they provoked. "It's true, things are less violent here," says a teacher. "But look at what is happening: the Tibetan language is being crushed in our own schools, we are drowning in Chinese immigrants. They have basically decided to eradicate our population. This is why Tibetans have started setting fire to themselves."

Faced with an ever-growing number of willing martyrs, Beijing wants to smother the revolt by imposing an information blackout. The Party has sealed off the Tibetan regions, four times bigger than France and spread over four provinces, from the rest of China. To intercept foreign journalists, a string of roadblocks has been set-up – hundreds of metres before you even reach the affected areas. The Chinese press is required to use the dispatches from the official government press agency. There is no Internet access on the Tibetan plateau and mobile phones are tapped. When you talk to a Tibetan, he doesn't just turn off his phone, he takes out the battery as well…

Peaceful protests

Tibet is being crushed under an unofficial martial law. In Sichuan province, four to six times more money is spent on maintaining law and order in the Tibetan regions than in the rest of the province. The number of soldiers sent to the region is skyrocketing, leading some to predict an armed repression. But nothing seems able to stop the spread of these self-sacrificing tendencies. "I am convinced that the movement will continue, and even spread to other groups: teachers, civil servants…" predicts Tashi (not his real name), a writer who lives in Xining, the capital of Qinghai province. "It is the only form of protest that we have left: we cannot demonstrate, or sing, or write, or debate in forums… 70 intellectuals and artists are in prison." The immolations are therefore to be understood, not as acts of desperation, but on the contrary, as acts of combat. "Since the uprising in 2008, Tibetans have understood that freedom has a price, and that it won't just be given to us for free," adds Tashi. In that case, why not an open revolt? "Because of the Dalai Lama. Above all else, people want him back. How could they use methods which he disapproves of?"

When will all this bloodshed end? Tashi darkens: "At the start we said: after 15, the UN will intervene. Then we said 20. Now we are at 30, and nothing is happening… Now people speak of 2,000 sacrifices," he says with a shiver, "a figure which we pretend to have gotten from Gandhi's fight against the English…"

Despite the worsening of the situation, the Tibetans seem surprisingly optimistic. "Of course we are!" says Tashi passionately. "I must admit that for a long time I thought that we didn't have a chance against China… And then there was the uprising in 2008 and the world realized that we are an extraordinary people, ready to die for freedom, for justice. All these martyrs are our heroes and they give us extraordinary strength. I am convinced that in the end we will win, because moral force always wins out against physical force eventually."

Read the original article in French.

Photo – SFTHQ

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