The name of the Dalai Lama was on his lips. Tsering Gyal, a monk from Akyong monastery, set himself ablaze in front of a concrete lotus marking the center of Golok, a city in China’s far west. He continued walking for several meters, afire, toward county headquarters, then collapsed on the pavement where he was treated by police. Before his death, Tsering stated, “Today, I burned myself for the re-union of Tibetans. My only hope is the unity among Tibetans and the preservation of the Tibetan language and tradition.” He died on November 11, 2013 from his injuries, the 123rd Tibetan to burn himself alive.
The steady march of self-immolations in the Tibetan cultural area of China (the majority of incidents have occurred outside the government’s designated Tibetan Autonomous Region) presents a puzzle to those unfamiliar with the culture. One suicide is shocking. A succession is mystifying. (The government blames foreign conspirators, “masterminded and incited” by the Dali Lama, one police chief alleged last year). Though it is tempting to view these acts in terms of traditional protest or as a ploy to grab the world’s attention, there has been no indication these episodes were intended for a global audience. Recorded last words and the written notes left behind have consistently appealed to the Tibetan community itself, typically invoking the themes of unity and cultural preservation.
Unity is commonly invoked in reference to solidarity among Tibet’s three distinct regions: U-Tsang, Amdo, and Kham. Each has a unique identity and a dialect nearly incomprehensible to others. In exile, refugees generally communicate by adopting U-Tsang’s dialect, historically associated with the seat of Tibetan sovereignty. But thetendency to assert a primary affinity for regions of origin remains strong. Self-immolators, such as Tsering Gyal, appear to be trying, in part, to inspire dedication to a political vision transcending provincialism.
Preserving culture is a concept that can be viewed rather widely. It can be traditional dress (the warm robes known as chubas) or diet (mixtures of barley flour and butter tea, called tsampa). However, the meaning most relevant under Chinese rule is Tibetan Buddhism, with its allegiance to the Dalai Lama, the one aspect of Tibet’s culture that is shared across regions, by urban traders and nomadic herders. Buddhist identity helps define community membership, prescribes everyday practices, and provides a fundamental structure for thinking about their lives. It is also intensely suppressed by the government. Monks and nuns are closely monitored. Families risk arrest for displaying photos of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Police sometimes outnumber devotees at religious gatherings. The restrictions on Buddhism wreck havoc in a society where intimate ties to local deities and important teachers are considered vital for worldly well-being and fortunate rebirth. Cultural preservation is a war cry to protect the salvation generated by Buddhist practice.
Reaching out to the Tibetan population through self-destruction makes more sense in a culture oriented around Karma and a broad view of causality than it does to the West, where cause-and-effect relationships are seen as straightforward. Westerners might think that Chinese authorities aren’t responsible if they don’t strike the match, but the belief that outside forces can bear responsibility for personal decisions has considerable precedence in the East. Hunger strikes by Mohandas Gandhi, for example, were powerful precisely because the grievances behind his protests were considered linked to them, the cause of them, making the guilty parties accountable if he starved. In Tibet, it makes little difference whether authorities lit the match that burned Tsering Gyal, or if they only created an intolerable political situation. The government is accountable, either way.
The result is other Tibetans are pushed into sustained opposition to the Chinese government. After more than fifty years of occupation, and at a time of accelerated Han migration, the Chinese presence in Tibet is becoming an unalterable fact. The Dalai Lama is aging, at nearly eighty years old, and attempts by the Tibetan exile administration to engage China in dialogue about reforms have yielded little interest or meaningful progress. Highly motivated by political vision and community, self-immolators are people who perhaps see the present as a time to instill urgency into their struggle, before resistance to Chinese authority fades into resignation. Tsering Gyal’s dream of a reunited Tibet, meaning the return of the Dalai Lama and other refugees, may take time, it may never happen, but he has imprinted a potent memory on the culture of his people. One that will ensure future generations of Tibetans do not easily accept Chinese rule.
Evan Denno is a writer in India and a contributor to A Hundred Thousand White Stones, a memoir of one Tibetan woman’s experience as a refugee