Patrick Brown: Tibet's epidemic of self-immolation

Earlier this month, while most of the world looks the other way, a Buddhist monk in Sichuan province became the 100th Tibetan since 2009 to set himself on fire, Patrick Brown reports. It is a horrifying form of protest that has, sadly, become almost commonplace.

Warning: This piece contains a graphic description

Tibetans in Nepal hold a candlelight vigil on Wednesday to show solidarity with those who have immolated themselves and to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1913 Tibetan proclamation of independence. (Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters)

In Canada, the recent hunger strike by Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence jolted the country into a national reflection about the issues for which she seemed willing, symbolically at least, to put her life on the line.

In China, a more dramatic and horrifying form of protest has become almost commonplace

At six o'clock on the morning of Feb. 3, Lobsang Namgyal, a 37-year-old Tibetan monk strode up to a police station in Zoege in the Tibetan area of Sichuan province, drenched himself with gasoline and set himself on fire.

It was the hundredth self-immolation since 2009 when this wave of suicides began in the aftermath of widespread protests the previous year. Security in the region is so tight that it took 10 days for news of this grim milestone to reach the outside world.

Eighty-two of the 100, including Lobsang Namgyal, have died. And on Wednesday, police in Nepal, outside China's jurisdiction, reported another Tibetan exile was in critical condition after setting himself alight at the foot of Kathmandu's Boudhanath Stupa, a revered Buddhist shrine.

Far from provoking a national reflection on what life under Chinese rule is like for Tibetans, this wave of self-immolations has met with a predictable reaction from Chinese authorities.

It consists of a propaganda campaign accusing the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of instigating the protest, as well as ever-tighter security measures, including harsh prison sentences for those accused of abetting the suicides, or trying to stop police from seizing the remains.

When the Chinese parliament meets in a few weeks, Tiananmen Square will be lined with fire extinguishers and police snatch teams.

The chance of another suicide by fire is, in itself, of no particular concern to China's rulers. But they are determined to prevent such an event in the political heart of the country from being captured by the world's media.

Eye-witness account

Publicly committing suicide in this most excruciating and extreme form of protest can have a powerful impact.

Fifty years ago in Vietnam, a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc became the first person in modern times to burn himself to death for a cause.

He set himself on fire on June 11, 1963, to protest the harsh treatment of Buddhists by the regime of the Roman Catholic president Ngo Dinh Diem.

The New York Times' David Halberstam, the greatest of Vietnam War reporters, witnessed the event and filed this unforgettable report:

"Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly … 

"I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him."


The images of the burning monk, coupled with the callous and distasteful reaction of the Diem regime, were so shocking to U.S. president John Kennedy that he authorized the removal of Ngo Din Diem a few months later.

Since then, politically motivated self-immolations have occurred in dozens of countries.   Inspired by Thich Quang Duc's example, a student named Jan Palach set himself on fire in Prague's Wenceslas Square in 1969, a martyrdom that Czechs see as an important stepping stone towards the overthrow of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia 20 years later.

Two years ago, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi became the catalyst for revolution in Tunisia and beyond when he set himself on fire in protest against a life plagued by injustice, harassment and humiliation.

In each of these instances, the unexpected and dramatic death of a single individual — all the more powerful because the violence was directed inward and harmed no one else — had a significant impact on events.

But that is not always the case.

So far, Beijing has remained unmoved by one hundred such deaths in the Tibetan areas of its western provinces, and in Tibet itself, the supposedly autonomous region that China controls.

International awareness of the situation has been muted because many of the areas where the suicides are happening have been closed to foreign reporters for years.

In Tibet, decades of Chinese rule have created a bottomless well of resentment in which Tibetans feel that they lack the freedom to practice their religion, and that their language and culture are under threat.

Brutal paramilitary policing, environmental depredation, careless economic development and an influx of Han Chinese carpetbaggers have made matters worse.

That said, we know distressingly little about the precise motives that have led so many Tibetans to take this drastic and often final step of burning themselves to death. Only a few have left behind a clear statement.

A futile waste

Those few testaments that have been left express a yearning for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama. And they implore their fellow Tibetans to protect their language and religion, but make no specific demands of China.

General discontent is not sufficient to explain the epidemic of suicides.

Very few of the self-immolations have taken place in the Tibetan heartland, which China calls the Tibetan Autonomous region.

Almost all have been in the Tibetan areas of neighbouring provinces, which suggests that regional issues may be playing a role as well.

Many, including the most recent, have been associated with one particular monastery, Kirti, in Sichuan. It's likely that the phenomenon of emulative suicides, known as the Werther effect, named for the wave of suicides that followed the publication of Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, is also playing a role.

In terms of effectiveness, self-immolation is particularly vulnerable to the law of diminishing returns.

One martyr with a clear message provides a rallying point for the cause he or she died for. When a hundred people burn themselves to death, they become, sadly, statistics.

This protest has become a futile waste of young lives.

China's accusation that there is a campaign orchestrated by the Dalai Lama is quite unfounded. The Dalai Lama has said nothing to encourage the self-immolations.

At the same time, by saying nothing more than "what's happening is very sad; it brings tears to my eyes," he has not used his enormous authority to discourage them either. It may now be time for him to do so.