March 5, 2013

What is Driving Tibetans to Self-Immolate?

“The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” ~ Thucydides

Currently the number of known Tibetans to have self-immolated is at 107. And with the global Uprising Day for Tibet coming around once again on March 10th, I thought it might be useful to look at why they are doing this, where this method of non-violent protest has worked in the past and where a possible solution to all of this lies…with the citizens of China.

To know why the Tibetans are doing this is a hard one to answer, due to the fact that most of them have died or those that survived have long since disappeared as they are being held by the Chinese government—a shuddering fact in itself.

Despite this, clues to their motivations have been found in notes left behind by the deceased stating their desires for the return of their beloved Dalai Lama to Tibet and for freedom from oppression for all Tibetans and the missing Panchen Lama.

With the Dalai Lama encouraging his people to take a non-violent approach, Tibetans who revere him are doing as he suggests. Unfortunately, since 2009 they have started drinking gasoline and setting themselves on fire as a means of non-violent protest.

Up until recently the Dalai Lama did not speak out on these acts of protest but now he claims he can’t say if the self-immolation’s are right or wrong, but that a probe into why they are happening needs to begin.

So has this form of protest ever worked before?

Thích Quảng Đức in Saigon, South Vietnam on June 11th 1963, self-immolated at a busy road intersection. South Vietnam at the time was under the rule of a Roman Catholic government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. Although the population was believed to be 70 to 90 percent Buddhist, President Diem a member of the Catholic minority, upheld discriminatory policies which favoured Catholics for public service, military promotions, allocation of land, business arrangements and tax concessions.

Buddhists being denied promotion in the army if they did not convert to Catholicism, forced conversions, looting, shelling and demolition of villages by Catholic priests and their private armies, disproportionate distribution of aid to Catholics are just some examples of the inequalities being implemented.

To add to the discontent the flying of the Buddhist flag was banned for Buddha’s birthday whilst the white and gold Vatican flag was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam. This act in itself caused large protests where nine people were killed due to government forces firing into the crowd.

On June 10th 1963, U.S correspondents were informed that “something important” would happen the following morning on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Most reporters disregarded the message, as the Buddhist crisis had been going on for over a month. In an interview the photographer Malcolm Browne, who took the famous photograph of this event called The Burning Monk, explains how he had been spending time with the Buddhist monks and was on friendly terms with them, as he believed they were likely to be the movers and shakers in whatever turned up next:

“Along about springtime (1963), the monks began to hint that they were going to pull off something spectacular by way of protest—and that would most likely be a disembowelment of one of the monks or an immolation. And either way, it was something we had to pay attention to…so it came to be that I was really the only Western correspondent that covered the fatal day.”

He then gives a detailed description of what he found when he went down to the crossroads.

“…By the time I got to the pagoda where all of this was being organized, it was already underway—the monks and nuns were chanting a type of chant that’s very common at funerals and so forth. At a signal from the leader, they all started out into the street and headed toward the central part of Saigon on foot. When we reached there, the monks quickly formed a circle around a precise intersection of two main streets in Saigon. A car drove up. Two young monks got out of it. An older monk, leaning a little bit on one of the younger ones, also got out. He headed right for the center of the intersection. The two young monks brought up a plastic jerry can, which proved to be gasoline. As soon as he seated himself, they poured the liquid all over him. He got out a matchbook, lighted it, and dropped it in his lap and was immediately engulfed in flames. Everybody that witnessed this was horrified. It was every bit as bad as I could have expected. I don’t know exactly when he died because you couldn’t tell from his features or voice or anything. He never yelled out in pain. His face seemed to remain fairly calm until it was so blackened by the flames that you couldn’t make it out anymore. Finally the monks decided he was dead and they brought up a coffin, an improvised wooden coffin.”

One policeman prostrated on the ground in front of Duc out of reverence. In English and Vietnamese, a monk repeated into the microphone “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” That evening thousands of Saigonese claimed to have seen a vision of the Buddha’s face weeping in the sky at sunset.

During the funeral, the body was re-cremated; Duc’s heart remained intact and this was considered to be a symbol of compassion. He is now revered by Vietnamese Buddhists as a Bodhisattva.

This is a video of Duc’s self-immolation which contains graphic footage:

The photographs taken by Malcolm Browne were featured on the front pages of newspapers across the globe; the self-immolation was later regarded as a turning point in the Buddhist crisis and a critical point in the collapse of the Diệm regime once they had become ingrained into the psyche of the world public.

President John F. Kennedy, who incidentally was funding Diem’s regime at the time, learned of Duc’s death when he saw the morning newspaper whilst on the phone with his brother. His immediate reaction was “Jesus Christ!” He later stated, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” For Browne and the Associated Press, the pictures were a total success with him going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for them.

After Duc, five more monks self-immolated, up until late October 1963, after which the Republic of Vietnam overthrew Diem in a coup on November 1st 1963.

So what has happened to humanity today that 107 Tibetans can self-immolate and still nothing has changed? What can possibly be done to reverse this fact?

The people of China can be the solution.

They have faced immeasurable atrocities from their own government. They too have tried to protest against it and one of their more famous attempts reached the world via the iconic photograph of the Tank Man on Tiananmen Square. Tired of the hard-line policies forced upon them students, workers, professionals and navy personnel began gathering to protest over the course of a few months and when they refused to back down they were ultimately gunned down.

Most Chinese people under the age of 25 today have never even heard of this tragedy, as the government attempts to keep it well under the carpet. But if they did know, if they had full access to the internet and media as we do, what would they do?

If they had access to books like From Dictatorship To Democracy by Gene Sharp, would they follow its methodical plans of toppling a dictatorship by hitting them where they are weak i.e. non-violently?

I think so.

For not all Chinese even know the real truth of what is happening in Tibet; and if they did, I believe most would not want that either. They would agree with the wishes of the Dalai Lama and his people due to suffering enough violence and horror in their own lives.

Knowledge is power, dear friends, and the more knowledge we can impart into the world with regard to the situation in Tibet and China and the methods of non-violence, the more seeds of hope we spread.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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