Ablaze in the land of snow

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Not far from the Northern borders of Bhutan lies the Land of Snow, Tibet. It is a country whose history, traditions, and culture, are intertwined with Bhutan’s; our strongest link to Tibet being is our religion, our Buddhist heritage. The Bhutanese and Tibetans have battled with each other sparring over territorial and religious issues, but we as neighbors cannot ignore Tibet’s struggle that has continued for decades now. As fellow Buddhists, it is hard to look away from the plight of a suffering people. Just to the north of us, Tibetans have been self-immolating.  They- mostly monks, but also nuns, mothers, wives, daughters, husbands and sons – have been dousing themselves in gasoline and setting their bodies aflame, while uttering the name of Dalia Lama; a beckoning for his presence back to their homeland. They also want and shout “Rangzen,” freedom for Tibet. Self-immolation has been viewed as a controversial way of drawing attention to a cause. While some claim it as violent, most Tibetans view it as a powerful and non-violent form of resistance. But self-immolation as a form of resistance and protest is not new. Alongside the Tibetan’s are the Tunisians. There have been 150 immolations in Tunisia since the fall of Ben Ali in the Arab Spring

In Tibet, Self-immolations have surged to a 109 deaths since 2009. This number is not just a statistical figure, but like Tunisia it is telling of a significant story that speaks of an increase in the intensity and desperation that Tibetans feel about the many decades of living under occupation and attempts of sinicization by the Chinese government. But news of self-immolations in Tibet rarely seems to hit the worldwide media’s attention, unlike suicide bombings or drone attacks. This is because the Chinese State controls the flow of information in and out of Tibet with an iron hand.  However as more and more images of bodies engulfed in flames slip through China’s iron grasps – with the Internet and cellular technology that is impossible to control – the world is compelled to pay attention to Tibet’s woes.

Nothing speaks more succinctly than the voices of people who are going through the storm in Tibet. “Storm in the Grasslands,” contains first- hand reports put together by the International Campaign For Tibet (ICT), and High Peaks Pure Earth is a blog maintained by the vociferous Tibetan writer Woeser who is currently under house arrest and writes from China despite constant surveillance. Woeser was recently awarded and recognized as a hero by the International Women’s Media Foundation. What immerges from these sources is that Tibetans are deeply aggrieved by China’s repeated attempts to destroy their Buddhist traditions, culture, language and dress; through intimidation, coercion and Patriotic Reeducation designed to alter Tibetans’ allegiance from the Dalai Lama and their strong Buddhist roots to the Communist party and the Chinese government. A young man laments: “Tibetans are not allowed to express their cultural identity, even in simple ways sometimes like wearing our own clothing. His Holiness is not allowed to come home. We have no rights to practice our religion properly, to pray at our temples, to live according to our religion. It is not possible to obtain a complete religious education and our hearts are broken by the way that monks and nuns are treated.”

Through historical accounts of unceasing and prolonged sufferings of the Tibetans under Chinese rule we can understand intimately their frustrations and yearning for freedom and independence. From the 1950’s and through the late 1990’s, Tibetans were routinely assassinated, massacred, imprisoned and intimidated. In 1998, Patriotic Education campaigns were forced on all Tibetans, and monks in particular were targeted as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) views them as the institutionalized bearers of their religion and culture. The goal of these education campaigns was to purge the monks and the ordinary citizens of their allegiance to the Dalai Lama and their Buddhist roots. These campaigns were largely unpopular and ultimately failed to change the loyalties of the Tibetans. This failure engendered open and covert violence towards the people of Tibet who suffered further intimidation and repression. It is under these conditions that in 2008 – the year of the China Olympics – thousands of ordinary Tibetans organized a peaceful mass protest throughout the Tibetan plateau which ended with arrests, imprisonments, and the further clamping down of the entire Tibetan region. In February 2009, a month that marks the Tibetan New Year, Kirti monks of Ngaba were disallowed from performing their annual New Year prayer.  This prohibition of something so sacred and profound to the Tibetans became the cataclysmic event, igniting the first self-immolation of Tapey, a monk in Kirti monastery of Ngaba on February 27, 2009.

Ngaba has seen disproportionately the largest concentration of people, 39 in total, mostly monks who have self-immolated.

Ngaba now part of Sichuan province has a long and tumultuous history with the People’s Republic Of China (PRC). It was the first place of attack – owing to its proximity to the borders of China – by the Chinese before they occupied Tibet. However even before the war with PRC, Ngaba region faced many wars with several Chinese dynasties, instilling and nurturing the spirit of resistance to people who have had to defend their borders from invaders generation after generation.  It is therefore no surprise that as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continues to clamp down on the lay people and monks of Ngaba, the further the people of Ngaba will resist. Ngaba has seen, disproportionately the largest concentration of people, 39 in total, mostly monks who have self-immolated.

As compassionate fellow human beings and as people whose identities are inextricably linked because of our shared cultural practices and our Buddhist traditions, we as a Bhutanese should not ignore the developments happening just outside our borders. Furthermore, from the point of view of what is at stake for the future of Bhutan, we should also keep a sharp eye on the ecological destruction- taking place on the Tibetan plateau. Temperatures are rising rapidly in the Tibetan plateau where glaciers that feed some of our rivers – such as Kuri chhu and Amo Chhu – are drying up at an alarming pace. Environmentalists go as far to claim that at the rate of climate change, our Himalayan glaciers may disappear by 2035.   As we have seen in the past, our neighbors’ troubles have a habit of becoming our troubles.  For reasons of pragmatism and as fellow Buddhists, we cannot afford to ignore the predicament of our neighbors in the Land of Snow, Tibet.