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Tibetan Self Immolation: A Cry in the Wilderness?

R S Kalha is a former Indian Ambassador to Iraq.
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  • April 04, 2012

    When most people in India saw Jamphel Yeshi, a young 27-year old Tibetan, setting himself on fire to protest the arrival in India of the Chinese leader Hu Jintao, they could not but have pondered over the sad fate that has befallen a forgotten people. Born in Tibet but living in India, Jamphel Yeshi was an activist with the Tibetan Youth Organisation who, before self immolating, left a poignant and a heart rending hand written note. Yeshi wrote, ‘the fact that the Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st Century is to let the world know about their suffering.’ Yeshi is not alone in this regard; the number of Tibetan self immolations in China has crossed over thirty. But is the world listening?

    Predictably, as if on cue, the Chinese authorities put the blame on the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei accused the Dalai Lama of ‘masterminding’ the series of self immolations and blandly asserted that ‘the Dalai group is sparing no efforts to incite Tibetan independence activities by creating various troubles.’ Predictably also, the Chinese officials ‘complimented’ the Indian authorities for their ‘handling’ of the situation. Apart from officials, not many in India would be enthused to receive such a compliment!

    And yet the Chinese refuse to take a second look at what is actually causing such unrest in Tibet. Areas inhabited by Tibetans are under harsh security cover. Many new road check points have been built and they are manned by heavily armed Para-Military Police wearing flak jackets and often carrying small fire extinguishers. The Chinese have also instituted ‘monastic management’ plans in order to control religious life. About 21,000 Chinese officials have been deployed to ‘befriend’ Tibetan monks and dossiers have been created on most of the latter. Compliant clergy are rewarded with extra health care benefits, pensions, television sets and other facilities. In addition, over a million national flags and Mao portraits have been distributed; monasteries have to compulsorily hang Mao portraits. Such heavy handedness is causing great disaffection amongst the general Tibetan population.

    The Tibetans are a gentle people. Before Buddhism arrived in Tibet from India during the 11th century, the Tibetans were animist by religion, savage by nature and revelled in military exploits. Buddhism changed all that for it preaches against killing any living being and the Tibetans, being avid followers of the Buddha, became gentle by nature. Soldiers faded away and Tibet thereafter never threatened anyone. There is the Tibetan belief that Tibet is a special land protected by the Buddha. Tibet had a unique gentle civilisation that meant no harm to anyone. As the Tashi Lama was reported to have once said, ‘we know nothing and we do nothing, but read and pray.’ Although Tibet’s ethnic boundaries have often not been congruous with its political boundaries, Tibet is surrounded by two countries only; namely India and China.

    Sadly for the Tibetans, apart from human rights activists, no country has spoken up for them or for their obvious suffering. When a Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self immolated in Tunis on 17 December 2010, he actually helped launch the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ which led to widespread changes in the Arab World. Unfortunately for Jamphel Yeshi, nothing similar seems to have happened in Tibet. Even when the Chinese occupied Tibet in 1950 and the Tibetans took their case to the UN, no major country including Nehru’s India supported their case. It took little El Salvador in far away Latin America to sponsor a hearing for the Tibetans at the UN, but which eventually petered out. Led by the UK and India even the UN was disinclined to recommend any action. While most are demonstrably anxious about the goings on in Syria and critical of the killings of innocent civilians there, as they are of the blood bath that followed the defeat of the LTTE in Sri Lanka, few if any are prepared to shed a tear for the hapless Tibetans. Even the UN Human Rights Council has failed to act and the UN Human Rights Commissioner, the South African Navi Pillay, so alert on the Syrian issue, has failed to notice any human rights violation.

    The reasons are not far to seek. No one wishes to annoy the Chinese. The People’s Republic of China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is the second largest economy in the world after the United States. The Chinese market is indeed a very valuable one. Its military power is growing steadily, as is its huge expenditure on defence. Recently the US was pushed into taking a review of its military posture to meet the growing Chinese military strength. The review, as approved by President Obama, underlines the fact that the emergence of China as a military and economic power has indeed become a ‘contentious’ issue. Unfortunately for the Chinese, they were bracketed in the same paragraph as the ‘threat’ from Iran. There is no doubt in the minds of US policy planners that in the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the ‘potential’ to affect the US economy and security in a ‘variety of ways’. While recognising that the two countries have a stake in the maintenance of peace and stability in East Asia and in building a ‘co-operative’ relationship, the review demanded that China must ‘clarify its strategic intentions’ in order to avoid friction in the region. What was left unsaid was whether China would ‘co-operate’ with the US as it pursues its policies in the region or adopt a strategic profile hostile to US interests. Perhaps that was the meaning of the phrase, ‘clarifying its strategic intentions’. Thus it was clear that a dual track US policy has emerged from the review. The US will continue to work with China and at the same time keep a wary eye on its ‘intentions’. Meanwhile the unsaid US Administration policy would be that nothing should be done to un-necessarily rile the Chinese. To be fair, however, the US Senate has taken the lead and passed a bi-partisan resolution that ‘mourns the death of Tibetans who have self immolated and deplores repressive policies that target the Tibetans.’

    However, all is not lost for the Tibetans. With the evolution of the new media and social networking websites such as Twitter, Face book, etc., the suffering of the Tibetans is now known worldwide. Millions all over the world who saw the self immolation of Jamphel Yeshi could not but have failed to be moved at the gruesome sight and at the plight of the hapless Tibetans. As more such self immolations take place, the revulsion for Chinese policies in Tibet will grow exponentially. It is time for the Chinese leadership to take note.