The two teenage Tibetans, a monk and a layperson, walked past the eastern gate of the Kirti monastery on Aug. 27, their bodies engulfed in flames as they toppled to the ground. Chinese security forces raced over with fire extinguishers. They carried them to a nearby hospital, where they are believed to have died soon after.
The cousins, 17 and 18, joined a growing list of people who have set fire to themselves in the past three years to protest China’s harsh rule of Tibetan areas.
According to Woeser, a Tibetan poet and commentator, 56 Tibetans, including nine women, have set fire to themselves since 2009, when the first self-immolation took place. Of those, 41 came in the first eight months of this year. Three have taken place in Nepal and India. Woeser keeps a running tally on Invisible Tibet, her Chinese-language blog. She’s posted bios, photos, and testaments in some cases, of each person who has set fire to him or herself.
“Actually, in the history of the Tibetan people, there have never been so many people who have set fire to themselves,” says Woeser.
More than a few observers have made comparisons to Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk who self-immolated in Saigon in 1963 to protest the Diem government’s anti-Buddhist policies. A photo of the incident appeared in newspapers all over the world, putting pressure on the Diem regime to make religious reforms. Diem first agreed to carry out the changes, but he later reneged, setting off a series of incidents that led to his downfall.
So far, the more than 50 incidents in Tibet have not had the same impact as that single incident. Beijing remains unmoved.
Experts say they’re not surprised, pointing to China’s extremely tight control of Tibetan areas.
“It’s interesting that the outside world might get four or five lines in The New York Times world round-up, but this does not get the sort of coverage one would think,” says Elliot Sperling, professor of Tibetan studies at Indiana University. “China is doing a very good job of keeping people away.”
Sperling says Beijing has cut off access to Ngaba in the eastern part of the region and prosecuted people for spreading news of the self-immolations.
“If Tibet were open and we could speak to people, this would be a much larger story,” he adds. “I don’t know how many journalists managed to even speak to friends or families of these people.“
Sperling says that if one major story could be published, it might be able increase the focus on the issue.
“A lot of people don’t know [about the self-immolations] because we’re not commanding headlines because the lack of info is blocking us and holding this story back,” says Lhadon Tethong, director of the Tibet Action Institute. “I think that the lack of constant coverage or information coming out of Tibet really hurts us.”
“The fact that journalists can’t get in and cover the story firsthand on the ground creates a pretty difficult situation in terms of keeping the story fresh,” said Lhadon Tethong. “I believe the international media can do more, but it’s images and video that sells, and not just another name that people don’t know how to pronounce or another sound story. We need access and that’s what governments should be pushing for.”
Further, she says China has succeeded in convincing the world it’s best to do things the Beijing way.
“China has just done a fantastic job of scaring the world into submission,” says Lhadon Tethong. “The last thing the Chinese government wants to see is a new government-coordinated response to the Tibet issue. And that’s exactly why we need to have one.”
Woeser says that while many foreign governments had made perfunctory comments about the self-immolations, none have tried to pressure Beijing on Tibet. “All of the assessments and all of the weighing of pros and cons are really just a closing of the eyes and a refusal to see,” she said.
But foreign governments may be at a loss about what to do.
“Foreign governments face the problem of not really knowing exactly what Tibetans want them to do that would not damage their own interests—what would not be damaging for them,” says Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University. “To really clarify this will require a lot of thinking and a lot of work.”
First, Barnett says it’s a mistake to compare the situation in Tibet to Vietnam in the 1960s.
“China has just done a fantastic job of scaring the world into submission.”
“The Buddhist population of Vietnam was the majority at the time. And the Vietnamese government was an extremely weak government that was dependent on the U.S. for support. So media impact in the West had a significant political role in that case,” he says.
“The Tibetans face a diametrically opposite situation—a very strong government, with little effective outside influence from the West, and a limited role for foreign media in affecting political change in their area.”
Still, some say the self-immolations have had one key impact—bringing Tibetans closer together.
And it’s the one tactic that the Chinese, even with all their resources, have found impossible to stop.
“It does seem that the thing about this that makes it difficult is that so many avenues of protest are repressed, but that self-immolation is something one does by oneself,” says Sperling. “There’s no meeting that has to be held, no group that can be infiltrated or informed on. It’s something to be done spontaneously.”
And it’s something that can’t be effectively combatted, though authorities have been trying to stop people from setting fire to themselves. “In Lhasa the police walk around with fire extinguishers and grappling hooks in case there’s a self-immolation,” he says.
Barnett says it’s a protest that resonates within Tibetan society, fitting in with accounts of the Buddha sacrificing his life in his previous lives. And it’s a tactic that doesn’t involve other people getting hurt—a contrast with 2008, when demonstrations in some Tibetan areas turned into riots, bringing about a Chinese crackdown.
The self-immolations could continue until Beijing relents and agrees to concessions, or the Tibetan government-in-exile calls for them to stop.
“The whole idea of mass suicide is horrific, and it is extremely dangerous, since there’s no obvious reason why people who are committed to changing Chinese policies in Tibet should stop killing themselves,” Barnett says.
“They are likely to believe that it could have a cumulative effect, that the more people die, the more the Chinese government will have a reason to change.”