Dalai Lama, Beijing, and Tibetan self-immolation

On Tuesday, May 21, 2013, in China, Dalai Lama, Self-Immolation, by Chris Ratke


Tapey, who self-immolated on February 27, 2009.

On February 27, 2009 a monk from Kirti monastery named Tapey set fire to himself along the main road in Ngaba county town. It has been over four years since his self-immolation protest, the first in Tibet. With over 100 such protests taking place since then, the self-immolations continue to generate a multitude of questions (and answers) among commentators and observers of Tibet. While the questions range from wondering if there is religious justification for these harrowing protests, to their political efficacy, most seek in some way to help us better understand how seemingly healthy, well-adjusted individuals (despite Beijing’s baseless – and shameless – propagandistic claims to the contrary) choose to undertake a form of protest that so clearly accepts death as an outcome. Presumably by answering these questions our increased understanding will lead to some action that will help bring a stop to the self-immolations.

Rather than directing these questions to Party leaders in China, holding them to account for the conditions in Tibet today that have led to the self-immolations, another line of inquiry is often pursued which seeks to reconcile popular notions about the Dalai Lama and his relationship with the Tibetan people, with his perceived inaction regarding the self-immolations. This is usually articulated as some variant of, “why hasn’t the Dalai Lama condemned the self-immolations?” or simply, “why hasn’t the Dalai Lama put a stop to the self-immolations?” These questions are largely based on the assumption that it is possible for the Dalai Lama to issue a proclamation that would bring an end to the self-immolations – an assumption that on some level accepts that the Dalai Lama is allowing, or even in some way causing, the self-immolations to continue.

This sentiment was again raised in a recent blog-posting on the Council on Foreign Relations website which asked, “why hasn’t [the] Dalai Lama used his moral authority to issue a public statement asking for Tibetans to stop the practice?” The writer asserts that “[i]t is widely believed that self-immolation cases would drop significantly if he makes such a move.”

The Dalai Lama was asked a similar question in a recent interview, in which he in part replied that, “I have always seen myself as a spokesperson of the Tibetans, not their sovereign. These people are responsible and make their decisions independently. Unfortunately, I’m not in the position to offer them a concrete alternative.”

While the Dalai Lama is widely recognized as the most revered spiritual leader in Tibetan Buddhism, the manifestation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion whose teachings and words carry the highest religious and moral relevance to millions of people, and the national figure for a nation without a state, he is not a dictator, a monarch, or even a Chairman. While it is not always recognized by others, the Dalai Lama has made clear that his position is not absolute and is bound by limitations. This includes not exercising dominion over the Tibetan people.

In addition to these more pragmatic considerations, the Dalai Lama has made clear the ethical dilemma he faces when addressing the self-immolations. Speaking to Reuters last August, he stated, “I will not give encouragement to these acts, these drastic actions, but it is understandable and indeed very, very sad.” As the leader of the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama must reconcile not encouraging the self-immolations with knowing that if he “say[s] something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy.” It is with this in mind that the Dalai Lama concludes that “the best thing is to remain neutral.” (The Hindu, ‘Meaningful autonomy is the only realistic solution’)

It is deeply cynical to contend that the Dalai Lama has the power to halt the self-immolation protests by issuing a verbal proclamation, yet disavows that ability and allows them to continue, all the while acknowledging how tragic these acts are.

Beijing has not hesitated to indulge in this reasoning, often pointing to the absence of a condemnation by His Holiness as evidence that he is either secretly behind the self-immolation protests, or simply has no regard for human life. (It should not be lost that in raising these points, Beijing never directs their comments to the Dalai Lama himself. Presumably, that would be too close to a direct dialogue with the Tibetan spiritual leader.)

Whether it comes from the leadership in Beijing, a Western journalist, or a casual political observer learning of the self-immolations for the first time, searching for a solution to the self-immolations based on preconceived notions of the Dalai Lama’s authority over Tibetans obfuscates the Chinese government’s responsibility to investigate and address the self-immolation protests. This double-standard that seeks answers from Dalai Lama before the Party is not only due to recognition on some level that the Dalai Lama’s position with the Tibetan people is far greater than that of the Party’s, but because the Dalai Lama is accessible (to those outside of Tibet) and upholds democratic principles, neither of which can be said of the Party. It is the leadership in Beijing who claims to be the sovereign over all Tibetan areas and desperately seeks recognition of its legitimacy. And as things stand, it is to Beijing where the gaze of commentators and world leaders must turn in order to find an answer to the question of how to truly bring an end to the self-immolations.

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