I tend not to focus on the number. Each individual act is sad. The 100th Tibetan to burn him or herself is no less tragic than the 99th, or the first. Our attention must focus on the messages they are sending, the counter-productive Chinese reaction, and the international community’s response.
Why do I find myself more affected, at this moment, by the incident in Kathmandu, where a 25-year old monk reportedly named Drongchen Tsering burned himself on February 13? He subsequently died of his injuries the next day.
On an emotional level, it may be because I know this place. The act occurred at the Buddhist stupa (shrine) at the center of the Boudhanath neighborhood in the eastern part of Kathmandu. From the pictures, it appeared to be on the southwest side of the circular plaza surrounding the stupa. I have been at that exact spot many times, most recently last November. Unlike with a self-immolations in Ngaba or Rebkong, I have a personal connection to this location and people there.
On a professional level, I worry that the negative marginal consequences for the Tibetan population in Nepal are greater than those faced by those in towns on the Tibetan plateau. I do not mean to minimize the struggle faced by Tibetans under Chinese rule, who have faced increased militarization of their towns, repressive measures and economic marginalization. But arguably, the Tibetan refugees in Nepal have relatively more to lose if this self-immolation precipitated a further downgrade in their conditions following Chinese pressure.
As documented in ICT’s annual report on Tibetan refugees in Nepal, this population is increasingly vulnerable and at risk due to the Chinese authorities’ more entrenched and systematic approach to constraining the Tibetan community in Nepal. Thousands of the 20,000 Tibetans residing in Nepal lack papers, meaning they do no have a legal right to work, own property or get an education for their children. The severely dysfunctional Nepalese government has not acted to solve this problem.
The Chinese government sees the Tibetans in Nepal as a source of agitation for Tibetans inside Tibet and a mouthpiece for what they call “splittism.” As a result, the Chinese Foreign Ministry has put immense pressure on Nepal’s government to clamp down on what it calls “anti-China activities,” which encompass any public remonstration on Tibet within Nepal.
Past may be prologue here. In response to the 2008 uprising on the Tibetan plateau, Tibetans in Nepal reacted with understandable and sympathetic outrage against Chinese policies, holding demonstrations in front of the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu. The result was a series of detentions of Tibetans by Nepalese police, under pressure from the Chinese Embassy. While the Tibetans were exercising their right to free speech, the reality that many of the protestors lacked legal standing in Nepal increased their vulnerability.
Over time, the protests faded as the Tibetan community came to understand that the risks outweighed whatever benefits they derived from demonstrating. Since 2008, Chinese interference has only made things worse for the Tibetan population. Tibetans cannot freely assemble in public with raising suspicions. Surveillance of them has increased. Leaders are visited by the police. Local elections have been blocked.
I fear that the self-immolation by Drongchen Tsering may make things worse. So far, there appears to be restraint on the part of the Nepalese authorities, which is encouraging. Hopefully, they recognize this as an isolated act by an individual (who was a recent arrival from Tibet, not a long-staying resident). But we must anticipate that Chinese officials there, needing to prove their mettle to their bosses in Beijing, will not stand idle. We can expect them to claim that this act was orchestrated by the “Dalai Clique,” as was suggested in the initial Xinhua report, and to ask for their pound of flesh from the Nepalese government. The role of the foreign embassies, especially the U.S., will be key here, in trying to maintain perspective and dissuade any rash reaction.
We must remember that the underlying problem here is not with the Nepal government, it is the Chinese government and its failure to properly address the grievances of the Tibetan people. The difficulties for Tibetans in Nepal can be traced to the Chinese exporting their counter-productive Tibet policies into a neighboring country. The February 13 incident must be looked at through this lens, and the attitude of Tibetans, both inside and outside Tibet, has to be analyzed in terms of the Chinese government’s behaviors.
The Boudha self-immolation offers a challenge to the Tibetans. How will the local Tibetan community in Kathmandu react? Will the Tibetan exile leadership in Dharamsala speak out? We would expect them to discourage acts of self-immolation, as they have done for the 100 or so inside Tibet. But Tibetans setting themselves on fire outside of Tibet is harder to explain as willful acts of defiance or resistance to Chinese rule. True, Drongchen Tsering lived in Tibet until very recently. But once he left the stifling environment of Tibet under Chinese rule, it cannot be said that he had no way of expressing himself but to set himself on fire.
Let us hope this was an isolated and singular act of self-immolation, and doesn’t portend a larger trend. And let us hope that cooler heads prevail, and that Tibetans in Nepal are not subject to further restrictions and vitriol from the Chinese. Lastly, let’s wish that Nepalese politicians can finally break their logjam and get back on the path of constitutional reform, to create the opportunity for a process to provide legal standing for the long-staying Tibetan residents of Nepal.