Tibet’s Monks Are Setting Themselves on Fire Again

It’s the worst escalation in anti-Chinese protests in almost two years—three self-immolations in a week—and Facebook is trying to pretend like none of it ever happened.

The world’s most brutal occupation took yet another bloody turn late last month, reports from Tibet now confirm. In the final week of the year, three Tibetans burned themselves alive to protest China’s 56-year-long occupation of Tibet. This was the most concentrated burst of self-immolations in almost two years.

As if that weren't tragic enough, Chinese police then opened fire on Tibetans trying to give one of the victims a traditional Tibetan funeral. On Facebook, authorities deleted posts related to the self-immolations. The social media giant says the images and posts were too graphic. Activists say Facebook is cozying up to the Chinese regime.

Tibet is the largest nation without self-determination in the world today with over 3 million Tibetans living under Chinese occupation in China and about 150,000 more in exile. Unbelievably, 1.2 Tibetans—over 20% of the country’s pre-occupation population—have died as a result of China’s repressive policies.

By way of comparison, according to Palestinian activists, 100,000 Palestinians (2.5% of the population) have died as a result of Israel-related violence since 1948.

China, however, is not Israel. As a world superpower with growing economic clout, not to mention the world’s most populous nation, there is little other nations can do, either in response to tragedies like the Cultural Revolution or Tienanmen Square massacre, or to ongoing occupations like that of Tibet.

Tibetans know this. The Dalai Lama has said since the late 1990s, that he would accept Chinese rule as long as Tibetans had “a high degree of autonomy,” and the Chinese regime stopped the population transfers that have made the Tibetan capital of Lhasa into a majority-Chinese city. But despite eight years of talks (from 2002 to 2010) and the Dalai Lama’s retirement from political life in 2011, not only has no progress been made, but the situation has steadily gotten worse.

Tibetans know this too. Outside of Tibet, the younger generation has questioned the Dalai Lama’s conciliatory policy. Inside of Tibet, the younger generation has become desperate, and self-immolation has become the desperate protest of choice. Echoing the self-immolation of Buddhist monks in Vietnam, the first such act took place in India in 1998, but the tactic began to spread in earnest in 2011.

Since then, 110 to have burned themselves to death.

Self-immolations are horrific. Youtube has a (warning—incredibly graphic) video of one here. Dying by fire is said to be the greatest human fear, which is why so many people jumped out of the World Trade Center on September 11. It’s an apt metaphor for rage and hopelessness, yet the self-immolators believe its dramatic nature also has the capacity to inspire. Indeed, the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi ignited the Arab Spring.

There is also a specifically Buddhist flavor to the act. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1965 that “to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance.” Yet the image of a monk or nun seated still in meditative posture while flames devour his or her body is also a provocative image for self-transcendence. It has become iconic.

It’s not known if a single thread unites the three most recent protesters. The first, Sanghe Khar, came from a remote, nomadic area, and killed himself on December 16, the occasion of a Tibetan holiday. The second, Tseypey, was a nineteen-year-old girl. Her exact motive was unknown, but activists note that a previous self-immolation took place in the same town two years prior. (A horrifying video is here.) The third, a Tibetan monk named Kalsang Yeshe, was a well-known teacher who self-immolated in front of a new police station established near his monastery, long a site of confrontation between Tibetans and Chinese forces.

It was the third self-immolation that triggered yet another round of violence – although details are unclear. According to a source on Radio Free Asia, a crowd gathered around Yeshe and tried to keep the police from taking the body away, perhaps because Yeshe was a monk. But the police fired into the crowd, and took the body anyway.

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Another report, by the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, said that the crowd gathered around the police station, demanding the body’s return, and that the police fired at that point.

Either way, Yeshe was denied a traditional funeral. His family was told that he’d already been cremated, and his ashes dumped in a river.

The final insult, though obviously not as egregious as all that had come before, came from—of all places—Facebook. On December 26, Tibetan writer Tsering Woeser wrote a short post about Yeshe’s death, including a link to video about it. Facebook deleted the post.

Tibet activists went ballistic. They noted that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been on a big pro-regime love-fest, publicly praising a book by Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping (reportedly stating that “I want [Facebook staff] to understand socialism with Chinese characteristics”), cozying up to censorer-in-chief Lu Wei, and speaking at a Beijing conference in Mandarin.

So the International Campaign for Tibet started a petition got a few thousand signatures (not really a big deal these days), and got Facebook’s attention.

In an official response to the criticism, Facebook said that the real problem was that the posted video was too graphic:

Facebook has long been a place where people turn to share their experiences, particularly when they’re connected to controversial events. Where such expression involves graphic videos, it needs to be shared responsibly, so that younger people on Facebook do not see it, and it doesn’t appear without warning in peoples’ News Feeds. While we continue to work on ways of giving people ways to share graphic expression responsibly, we will remove video content of this nature from our service… Any suggestion that we took action because of politics, philosophy or theoretical business interests is completely false.

Moreover, Woeser was able to repost the video later, where it remains. Surely, though, this undermines rather than proves Facebook’s point. If the video was too graphic on December 24, it was too graphic on January 8, no? On the other hand, if this is about Facebook trying to save face after a small-scale PR scandal, then the about-face makes sense.

Mark Zuckerberg is now on the Je Suis Charlie train, affirming free expression everywhere. Nice words. We’ll see if they translate into action the next time a young Tibetan sets herself on fire, and the Chinese regime seeks to sweep the ashes under the rug.