Tibetan Self-Immolations: Motives Behind the Tragic Protests

Submitted by lgintern on

In 1949, the newly established Communist China sent troops into their neighboring country, Tibet, under the guise of wishing to aid in development and improve the living standards in the secluded country. Tibet at the time was intentionally isolated from the international community, content in their way of life and only possessing a small army.1 China has maintained their claim that Tibet was historically a part of their territory, yet pre-invasion Tibet had its own distinct culture, language, religious traditions, political system, currency and passport. Although the Chinese signed a treaty granting Tibetans autonomy over their internal affairs, such promises were soon broken when the Chinese strengthened their control over the country with an increasingly large military presence.1 In the 64 years of the occupation of Tibet, the Chinese have attempted to “sinocize” the Tibetans in an effort to more easily exert control over the Tibetan plateau, a land with an abundance of natural resources and vast acreage to accommodate China’s growing population.1 Such policies, however, have proven disastrously counterproductive, contributing to the destruction of Tibetan identity, widespread self-immolations, and growing instability across the Tibetan Plateau.

Many have classified Chinese offenses and human rights violations perpetrated against Tibetans as  “cultural genocide.” Building off provisions of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) defines cultural genocide as “any deliberate act committed with the intent to destroy the language, religion or culture of a national, racial or religious group on grounds of national or racial origin or religious belief.”1 This definition includes any deprivation of cultural values and identities such as use of language, destroying or preventing use of; libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, places of worship or other cultural institutions and objects of the group, dispossessing the group of their lands, territories or resources, forced population transfers or forced assimilation as acts of cultural genocide.1

The Communist Party’s persecution of Tibetans qualifies as cultural genocide under the definition provided by the ITC. As evidence of this, the Chinese government has attempted to assimilate Tibetans primarily through imposing laws and restrictions on practicing Tibetan cultural traditions. The Chinese government has banned photos of the Dalai Lama, destroyed the majority of the Buddhist monasteries, restricted the use of Tibetan language and jailed and tortured thousands of Tibetans.1 The Chinese policies have also incorporated “patriotic education” for Tibetans and have forcefully relocated millions of Tibetan nomads into housing compounds, essentially eliminating the nomadic culture, an important aspect of Tibetan identity.1 Laws and restrictions on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism, the essence of Tibetan culture, are especially harsh. Targeting this foundation of Tibetan society indicates that the Chinese seek to systematically destroy traditional Tibetan culture.

    In line with Marxist disdain for religion as a divisive force, the Communist Party views anti-Buddhist policies as necessary components of ongoing efforts to eradicate ‘separatist’ elements in Tibet. As the core of Tibetan culture, the Party asserts that Tibetan Buddhism only serves to separate Tibetans from Han Chinese.2 Yet the intense religious persecution seems to only intensify the Tibetan sense of identity, forcing religious practitioners to forge secret bonds that reinforce a strong sense of solidarity.2 This phenomenon is evident in the fervent nature of the “Free Tibet” movement taken on by younger Tibetans. These young activists, many of whom were born in exile diaspora communities and prevented from even seeing their homeland, have never lived in a free Tibet. The Free Tibet movement remains as prominent in the lives of Tibetans as it was immediately following the Chinese invasion. Tibetans strongly believe that with the aid of the international community, they could be liberated.

    Core Tibetan Buddhist values of compassion and nonviolence, combined with harsh governmental restrictions, deter Tibetans from staging riots similar to those seen in the Middle East since the start of the Arab Spring. As Tibetans have attempted to attract international attention in order to gain broader support for their cause, they have turned to a form of protest that allows them to express their extreme suffering, while not harming others and minimizing potential punishment from the Chinese government.3 This approach involves widespread acts of self-immolation, the practice of setting oneself on fire. As many as 120 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009.4 They have taken to pouring gasoline over themselves, sometimes drinking the accelerant, and stepping out in the streets to set themselves on fire.3 The frequency of these events has caused Beijing officials to fear the development of a growing separatist movement. Rather than addressing the root causes of these desperate pleas for help, officials have responded by requiring permits to purchase kerosene and providing government officials with fire extinguishers in Tibetan areas 4 While self-immolations have alarmed the international community, underlying Tibetan grievances thus remain unresolved. Religious persecutions and the surrounding political circumstances shed some light on the troubling Sino-Tibetan relationship.

In Tibetan Buddhism, violence and hatred are vehemently condemned. While Tibetans resist Chinese control of their homeland, they adamantly assert that they do not feel anger toward their oppressors. They detest the Chinese Communist Party and the policies, but not individual Party members.2 From this viewpoint, a protest that would harm a Chinese official or citizen would elicit horror from the Tibetan community. The option for a non-violent group protest is not possible, as Chinese authorities would immediately thwart any large-scale gathering, as well as subsequently jail and torture any participants. Sadly, the Chinese seek to crush the very Buddhist spirit that compels Tibetans to engage in self-immolation rather than violent resistance.

Tibetan Buddhism condemns self-harm as well, but self-sacrifice for the greater good is seen as an exception.5 Tibetans who have self-immolated see the sacrifice of their body and the attention from the international community for their fiery protest as potentially aiding the international movement for a free Tibet. As such, self-immolation is viewed as ultimately benefitting Tibetans.5   

As the Dalai Lama is most important person in Tibetan Buddhism, all Tibetans revere him. The Dalai Lama has long advocated the “middle way approach” for Tibet. The middle way asks for autonomy over affairs concerning Tibetans yet allowing Tibet to remain a part of China. While directly going against the Dalai Lama’s wishes is considered taboo, the middle-way has lost popularity with the younger generation of Tibetans who have suffered at the hands of the Communist Party. These disgruntled youth believe that genuine autonomy is the only solution to the dire situation in Tibet.6 Self-immolation is a way to express the extreme grief felt by Tibetans in Tibet, as well as voice the problems with the middle-way approach taken by the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. Nearly all of the Tibetans who have self-immolated have called for a free Tibet while their bodies burned. The Tibetans who are self-immolating see Tibetan independence as the only option for prosperity and increased rights in the region. Frustrations with the middle-way approach have also increased to due a cessation of talks between the Tibetans and Chinese, the last one being held in 2010.1

In light of the reverence Tibetans hold for the Dalai Lama, many have called upon him to speak out against the self-immolations, believing that if he publicly condemned them, they would cease. If Tibetans inside of Tibet knew that the Dalai Lama directly opposed their actions, most would not want to go against him. The Dalai Lama refuses to make such a statement as he has renounced his political power, putting all the political decisions in the hand of the Tibetan government in exile.7 The Chinese government on the other hand, blames the self-immolations on the Dalai Lama, saying that he has encouraged Tibetans to do so as part of his separatist scheme. As self-immolations clearly highlight flaws in the government’s policy on Tibet, blaming them on the Dalai Lama is their way of downplaying the horrific consequences of their misguided policies.8  

The Chinese government has responded to the self-immolations by imposing harsher restrictions on Tibetans and increasing the military presence in the region. Examples include an increased crackdown against loyalty to the Dalai Lama and persecuting the family, friends and monasteries of those who have self-immolated.8  Increased repression, however, has only encouraged Tibetan activists. As restrictions and religious persecution increases, the number of those willing to engage in self-sacrifice increases as well. This increased crackdown only leads to more self-immolations, creating a positive-feedback loop that escalates tensions on the Tibetan Plateau.

As well put by Ajaz Ashraf, a journalist for The Daily Times, “Through self-immolation, the Tibetans are symbolically saying that because of the Chinese repression and the Dalai Lama’s exile, they are as alive as a dead body waiting to be cremated. Thus, in setting their bodies on fire they are in reality cremating themselves — and also mocking their tormentors who, unable to establish supremacy over the hearts and minds of Tibetans, forever seek to control their bodies.”8

While the Chinese continue to put economic development as their first priority in Tibet, claiming the occupation benefits Tibetans, Tibetans assert that they do not want development and the benefits of “modern life” at the expense of their religious freedoms. A nun who had recently left central Tibet stated, “I do not want electricity and the other colorful things the Chinese have introduced. I want full freedom to practice my religion without which I feel my life is empty and meaningless.” 2 Similar sentiments are echoed throughout the entire Tibetan population, proving that the Chinese crackdown and increased religious restrictions will not ease their occupation.

The Chinese seek stability in Tibet, yet seem approach the situation from the wrong perspective. As inconceivable as it may be to the Chinese government, the only way to return stability to Tibet would be to increase religious freedoms for the Tibetan people. The Beijing government’s plan to systematically destroy the Tibetan identity is ultimately counterproductive. Past examples, such as the Soviet Union’s attempt to homogenize and assimilate religious and ethnic minorities, have proven that identity cannot be repressed to the point of extinction when the group acts to protect it. Likewise, assimilation policies will likely ultimately undermine Communist Party objectives.2

While there were rumors of a new Chinese policy allowing Tibetans in two provinces to openly revere the Dalai Lama, the Communist Party has strongly denied that they have changed course. One of China’s most senior officials made a public statement calling for an "absolute fight" against what he termed "the Dalai clique" as a means of protecting Chinese unification.9 This continued steadfast opposition to the Dalai Lama and the practice of Tibetan Buddhism in Tibet offers little hope for progressive reform in the region. In the absence of substantive policy reform, the Chinese cannot expect Tibetans to change, or for the self-immolations to entirely stop. Enduring security will not return to the region until the Chinese are willing to abandon religious persecution, which will likely keep Tibetans, activists, and those in solidarity with the movement waiting for the foreseeable future.


1) International Campaign for Tibet, 60 Years of Chinese Misrule: Arguing Cultural

           Genocide in Tibet. Washington


2) Norbu, Dawa. China's Tibet Policy. Richmond, London: Curzon Press, 2001.


3) "What Makes Tibetans Self-Immolate?." VOA Cambodia 06 June 2013,<http://www.



4)"Chamdo at Center of Beijing's 'Re-Education' Campaign."Radio Free Asia 21 June 2013



5) Kun-khyab, Tenzin. "Is Self-Immolation Anti-Buddhism?."Central Tibetan Administration

14 June 2013, <http://tibet.net/2013/06/17/is-self-immolation-anti-buddhism/>.


6) Wade, Samuel. "88th, 89th Self-Immolations Reported, as Protests Strain Middle Way."

China Digital Times29 Nov 2012,<http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2012/11/88th-89th



7) "Dalai Lama won’t talk immolations." Sentinal Source 14 May 2012,<http://www.sentinel




8) "Storm in the Grasslands: Self-immolations in Tibet and Chinese Policy." International

Campaign for Tibet. International Campaign forTibet.<http://www.savetibet.org



9) Armstrong, Paul. "Fight against Dalai Lama will continue, top Chinese official says."

CNN 10 July 2013, <http://edition.cnn.com/2013/07/10/world/asia/china