The mood at the football stadium in Dharamsala, northern India, was sombre early this week. Sport wasn't on the agenda that evening. Hundreds of exiled Tibetans gathered to mourn. As the sun went down on the hill town, they held a candlelight vigil and offered prayers to commemorate two young men who had set themselves on fire in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, a day earlier.
The two were only among the latest in a continuing wave of self-immolations, a desperate form of protest against the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Three days later, 33-year-old Rikyo, a mother of three, set herself alight.
According to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), 38 people have immolated themselves in Tibet since 2009. In 2012 alone, Tibet has seen 25 self-immolations, 20 of which have resulted in death. This week's immolations in Lhasa could indicate that the movement is now spreading beyond Sichuan province in southwest China, a region fighting to be part of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
"If there is anyone who can change the situation, it is the Chinese government. I'm afraid the self-immolations will continue until there is change in the ground situation," said Tashi, spokesperson of the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamsala, who goes by one name. The town houses the largest exile Tibetan community as well as the offices of the exiled government.
Tashi adds that the plight of Tibetans is deplorable. "Tibetans inside Tibet have no basic human rights. Particularly, nuns and monks are being denied the right to practice their religion freely. People are forced to denounce their spiritual leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Even carrying a photo of the Dalai Lama is prohibited," he says.
In the wake of the protests across Tibet, the Chinese government has accused the spiritual leader Dalai Lama of inciting and encouraging self-immolations. The latest immolations have also triggered a spate of detentions.
A majority of self-immolators held monastic positions or were formerly enrolled at monasteries. The first recorded incident took place in February 2009 when Tapey, a monk in Kirti monastery in Ngaba County, burned himself. Since then, Kirti, the biggest monastery in Ngaba, part of Sichuan province, has been at the centre of these protests.
Historically, Tibetan monasteries have offered spiritual and political leadership to its people. Kanyag Tsering, spokesperson of the Kirti monastery's exiled branch in Dharamsala, says his colleagues back home are continuing to play their traditional role. "Tibetans have no trust in the Chinese administration. They rely on monasteries for political and spiritual guidance. And the monasteries have been challenging the [Chinese] government on behalf of the lay people," he said.
The 31-year-old monk says the Chinese government cracks down on religious institutions because of the support they offer to people. Tsering has been collecting information about the increased surveillance in Ngaba. "For several months in 2009, monks were not allowed to leave the monastery and civilians were not allowed to enter. Today, there are about 15 surveillance cameras within a stretch of one kilometre from the gate of the monastery to the main door," he said.
Violent or non-violent?
Questions have been raised on the very form of these protests. Isn't setting oneself on fire a violent action - something unacceptable in Tibetan Buddhism, which strictly advocates non-violence?
Tsering stresses that "self-immolations cannot be clubbed together with other forms of violence, because the motives of someone who sacrifices himself for a greater good are different from someone who is intending to cause hurt. Burning oneself for the freedom of six million Tibetans cannot bring negative karma. They do it for a selfless cause. So this is not against Buddhist beliefs."
Tsering, who has lived in India since 1990, refers to Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian independence movement against British colonialism through non-violence. "Gandhi also declared hunger strike unto death on many occasions. Does that make him violent? In every freedom struggle, violent or non-violent, people lose a part of themselves to attain a larger goal," he explains.
Gene Sharp, a Boston-based scholar on non-violent action who is credited with promoting non-violent struggles around the world, doesn't agree with classifying self-immolations as violent or otherwise.
"The situation in Tibet is very sad. People are desperate and this can be seen in the self-immolations. But I strongly discourage the form of protests. By shortening of lives, there can be no positive contribution for the future." he says.
Sharp also criticises self-immolations for being an easy outlet for unstable members of society. "It is a trap for those who are not stable. Suicide becomes an easy way out for them," he adds.
Every street in Dharamsala is adorned by posters of the "burning martyrs". They show blown-up, graphic images of the self-immolations. A message on one of them reads, "Sacrifice of life for Tibet". These posters have been designed and printed by the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), but the organisation maintains that it doesn't encourage self-immolation.
"Being a non-violent struggle, we the Tibetan people don't have many options left. Self-immolations and hunger strike are the two last resorts we have. And we don't have anything else. So this calls for the international community to truly support the just cause of the Tibetan people," saidTsewang Rigzin, president of the TYC.
The international community has remained tight-lipped over the issue of Tibet. In March this year, three Tibetans went on hunger strike in front of the United Nations headquarters in New York for over a month to demand action. "The UN human rights chief Navi Pillay responded by promising to assign special rapporteurs to look into the situation inside Tibet," Rigzin said. He's quick to add that progress on this issue is still awaited.
The protests have spread to neighbouring countries as well. In November 2011, Bhutuk, a monk in Nepal, survived after self-immolation. Four months later 27-year-old Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan student in New Delhi, died a couple of days after setting himself on fire in the Indian capital.
|Jamphel Yeshi, above, immolated himself in New Delhi in March [Felix Gaedtke/Al Jazeera]
Yeshi's friend Lobsang Jinpa, a former Tibetan political prisoner currently residing in Dharamsala, recollects the time they spent together. "He was always interested in politics. He would ask me what was the most difficult part of being in a Chinese prison and I would tell him about my experiences there. We would talk about the situation in Tibet for hours. He was very political," Jinpa said.
Jinpa, who was forced into exile, had never imagined that his friend would resort to such an extreme measure. "I wasn't expecting it. On the day of the protest, he didn't go along with me. He came alone, by himself. And I just remember seeing someone on fire at the protest site. I recognised soon that it was Yeshi. There was chaos. Some people tried dousing the fire. But I couldn't move..." Jinpa recounted.
Yeshi left behind a letter in which he expressed his wish for the complete freedom of Tibet, the return of the Dalai Lama to Free Tibet, and increased patriotism among Tibetan exiles.
Jinpa fled to India a year ago after being released from prison. He hasn't spoken to his friends since, but he claims to know what's on their minds. "People in Tibet are growing more and more desperate as Chinese repression increases. If nothing happens now, more and more people will burn themselves to death," he says.