Tibet’s burning problem: self immolation rates rise as the Dalai Lama remains mum on the escalating deaths

By Mahak Paliwal

Over the past several years, men and women in Tibet have adopted a unique and horrifying means of protesting against the Chinese regime—self immolation. On March 7, 2018, a man named Tsekho Tukchak, also known as Tsekho Topchag, aged 40, set himself of fire and died in the town of Meruma, located in the Ngaba county in Sichuan.

While Tukchak’s act was the first of its kind to take place this year, he is by no means the only one to choose self-immolation to protest China’s rule. In fact, this is reportedly the 153rd self-immolation in Tibet, and came on the 10th anniversary of the protests, which first swept the nation in 2008. At the time of his death, Tukchak reportedly called out “long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama and freedom for Tibet”.

“Since the wave of self-immolations in Tibet began in Ngaba, Tsekho Tugchak’s home area, the Chinese authorities have responded by intensifying the military buildup and repression… It is unthinkable that China can continue to block all independent investigations and requests for access to Tibet and impose a regime of fear and repression,” Matteo Mecacci, the president of the International Campaign for Tibet, said, the Tibet Policy reported.

“On March 7, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein denounced once again the Chinese Government’s failure to respect the rights of the Tibetan people. It is high time to hold the Chinese Government accountable for all 153 self-immolations that have taken place in Tibet since 2009,” Mecacci added.

Lobsang Sangay, president of the self-declared Tibetan government, currently in exile in India, expressed grave concerns over the recent self-immolation and has urged China to address what he deems to be the Tibetans’s legitimate grievances.

“Such sacrifices by Tibetans in Tibet evidence that repression in Tibet under the Chinese rule is making lives unliveable,” Lobsang said in a statement.

The Dalai Lama has historically attempted to remain neutral on Tibet’s self-immolation issue. Credit: Flickr Commons/Christopher Michel

The Dalai Lama’s silence on the issue

The Dalai Lama has historically attempted to remain neutral on Tibet’s self-immolation issue. In the past, the exiled religious leader has persistently refused to offer either negative or positive comments about the escalating self-immolation crisis.

“This is a very, very delicate political issue. Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong. So the best thing is to remain neutral” the Dalai Lama told the Hindu during an interview in 2012.

In yet another interview with the Financial Times in 2013, when asked about the worrying wave of self-immolations, the Dalai Lama said, “Those self-burnings: these people, not drunk. Not family problems … The overall situation is so tense, so desperate, so they choose a very sad way … It is difficult to say, ‘You must live and face these unbearable difficulties.’ If I have some alternative to offer them, then I [can]say, ‘Don’t do that. Instead of shortening your life, please live long, and we can do this and this and that.’ But [I have] nothing – no alternative. Morally, [it’s] very difficult. There is no other choice but to remain silent, and prayer.

“Our main concern is preservation of Tibetan culture – culture of peace, non-violence, ultimately a culture of love, compassion. That is really relevant in today’s world. Millions of Chinese also need culture of love. Once there is a culture of love, honesty and transparency [will] come. Police and death sentence will not solve these things. The very meaning of autonomy is look after your own culture. Once that is fully implemented, we are very much willing to remain within People’s Republic of China … We Tibetans are historically separate. Doesn’t matter. We can live together.”

The Tibetan Resistance Movement and the repercussions of the Dalai Lama’s silence

The escalating acts of self-immolation coupled with the Dalai Lama’s silence on the matter has is continuing to cause chaos in the Tibetan community. The self-immolations have led to a permanent tightening of security protocols in the region, hindering travel, business, and tourism, and is adversely affecting the economy, leading to increasing poverty.

Many human rights activities, who want to work with the Tibetans to improve the situation are also being blocked by the Chinese government, which has persistently leaned towards taking palliative measures rather than finding a peaceful, political solution.

Unlike other dictatorial regimes that have come under international pressure and sanctions, China’s rule over Tibet has not garnered a strong international response. China’s strong economy and trade relations make it desirable a political ally. However, given the country’s lack of positive response to Tibet’s self-immolation crisis, it may now be time for the international community to finally weigh in on the matter.

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