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Tibet's Self Murder: Tragedy or Transformation?

At least 41 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since Feb. 27, 2009, and 31 have died. What does it mean?

Protesters denounce Chinese policies towards Tibet in San Francisco at an Olympic torch relay.
Photo Credit: BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons


The charred, bodily remains of many self-immolators have been unceremoniously disposed of by local Chinese police, according to reports. Scores of Tibetans have reportedly committed self-immolation in protest against what they say are increasing atrocities committed by China.

What was in the minds of these Tibetans that caused them to set themselves on fire? Were these the final acts of frustration, despair and defiance, as Tibetans say? Or, were they treasonous acts of political perpetrators, as China's officials claim?

If these self-immolations are intended as the ultimate rejection of Chinese control, a cry for independence and a declaration of human rights, what does this imply to the outside world? And what can this mean to us?

At least 41 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since Feb. 27, 2009, and 31 have died, according to the International Campaign for Tibet, an advocacy group in Washington. If these acts were born of extreme desperation, having exhausted all other means of prayer, petition or protest, what else can our response be other than immense sadness and pity?

Passing the Baton

In a previous article, published in The Huffington Post, John Halpern examined the motivations in the hearts and minds of the resolute Hunger Strikers at the United Nations and the impact the self-immolation phenomenon is having toward a desired "Buddhist Spring in Tibet." The strike ended after promises were made by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva (OHCHR).

Halpern's article also traced the edges where religion becomes politics and where a nation's policies transfer to the greater domain of international humanitarian initiatives, intervention and action.

At the core of these world developments and of this story, is the blossoming of a "culture of activism," a rarely addressed but vital subject. This non-governmental force, independently initiated by communities, internationally and functioning within legal boundaries (or not) challenges the frontiers of freedoms of expression, assembly, demonstration, civil liberty and civil rights.

Most importantly, the legacies of the Tibetan self-immolators leave behind some mysterious and delicate questions about religion and its relation to activism:

  • What, if at all, is the religious component of suicide, given the circumstances?
  • Is the act one of blasphemy?
  • When one's religious freedom is terminated and the last of one's acts is suicide, if the mind of the victim is of an altruistic, compassionate nature (albeit desperate and defiant), can self-immolation be considered a spiritual act?

The Tibetan suicides, whether motivated religiously, spiritually, politically or some hybrid of the three, occur after 60 years of Chinese occupation. They also occur at a time in history when instant activism and international communication are possible wherever a cell phone is in range.

Yet despite modern technology, history reveals that war, invasions and crusades often result in the vanquishing of an entire culture, regardless of the contributions and gifts that culture had made for a greater, human civilization. For Tibetans, the suicides of their nuns, monks and fellow compatriots are not in vain. They are a rallying cry, literally and symbolically, for independence, freedom and cultural survival. In contrast, if Mao Tse Tung's Cultural Revolution implicitly intended to extinguish Tibet's religion, and the source of its identity and culture, then the self-immolations could mean that Tibet, as we know it, is dying.

Encouraging self-immolation for political purposes would be seen as nihilistic, from a Tibetan Buddhist standpoint. But to honor the sacrifices and politicize them is a passing of the baton, spiritually and morally, through invoking their memory and lives: and pragmatically, by casting the self-immolations into the activist and humanitarian arena.

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