Self-immolations have failed the Tibetans

The ex-Tibetan Prime Minister, Samdhong Rinpoche with the controversial 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley

By: Ki Ley

It has been three years since the first waves of self-immolations began in Tibet, Nepal and India. To this day, over 100 Tibetan men and women have set themselves alight to raise international awareness of the Tibetan cause with the hopes that it may stir the fight for Tibetan freedom from its decades of slumber.

Although the ethics of self-immolations and its proper place in the Buddhist religion are both highly debatable topics, there is one undeniable fact – in the last three years, the loss of over 100 lives has done little to move the international community in favor of the Tibetan plight. Compare this to the Vietnamese protests of the 1960s and the Arab Spring of 2010, both of which sparked revolutions with the loss of just one life.

In the case of Vietnam, monk Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation increased international pressure on the South Vietnamese government to end their persecution of Buddhist monks. More recently, in the case of the Arab Spring, the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, led to a series of protests. These culminated in the downfall of governments in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, as well as civil uprisings in at least 13 other Middle Eastern nations. In stark contrast, so many Tibetans have self-immolated and died for their cause with almost no change or result, and this itself justifies the asking of a few hard questions.

The first question we have to ask is, why have so many Tibetans been allowed to self-immolate, whilst their leaders and the world have remained largely silent? Samdhong Rinpoche appears to believe this silence is because the Tibetan administration is unable to do anything about it; he was recently quoted on Phayul.com saying that it is impossible for the Tibetan administration to discourage self-immolations.

Samdhong Rinpoche’s statement however, comes very late and almost as an after thought, after both the 17th Karmapas, heads of the Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism, issued independent statements calling for Tibetans to reconsider the effectiveness and indeed correctness of their actions, and to stop self-immolations.

These contradictory statements (between the Karmapas and Samdhong Rinpoche) reflect the lack of agreement within the Tibetan leadership in their approach towards self-immolations. It is surprising that the former Prime Minster of the Tibetan-Government-In-Exile, now known as the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), should announce that there is no way to discourage the spate of self-immolations.

Such a statement implies that the CTA has no control over its people. If indeed that is correct and the CTA is impotent in exerting influence over its people even with the living presence of the Dalai Lama, then one must ask how they hope to govern the people once His Holiness the Dalai Lama has entered clear light. Such an inability to lead the Tibetans without any intervention from the Dalai Lama renders futile any democratization efforts, as whatever political inroads currently made will be unsustainable without the Dalai Lama.

Samdhong Rinpoche was a strong advocate of the Shugden ban

However, it would also appear that Samdhong Rinpoche understates the power of the government backed by the influence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama on the Tibetan people. His statement directly contradicts a previous and actual example when the CTA, together with the Dalai Lama, wielded enormous control over the people in relation to the Dorje Shugden ban. It is a well-known fact that the Tibetan people uphold the ban because the Dalai Lama has declared Dorje Shugden’s practice not only as un-Buddhist but also blamed the failure of achieving Tibetan independence on the deity (as opposed to, perhaps, the lack of effective leadership in the CTA). In the face of debate, the average Tibetan’s lack of knowledge and logical reasoning regarding the true nature of the ban is always exposed.

20 years of upholding an illegal ban because the Dalai Lama said so, despite being presented with the truth on repeated occasions, is an impressive show of the Dalai Lama’s power and influence and yet it is this influence on the people that Samdhong Rinpoche claims the Tibetan leadership is unable to muster up to stop self-immolations. Surely if the Dalai Lama were to speak up in the same way as the Karmapas, then the Tibetans would immediately lay down their gasoline tanks and lighters, especially if the reasons to cease were given equal weighting to that of the Dorje Shugden ban – that self-immolation is un-Buddhist and in fact harms the Tibetan cause. As it turns out, the same considerations that have been proven to be false in the Shugden case apply as facts in self-immolations.

There can only be two conclusions for Samdhong Rinpoche’s contradictory stance on the CTA and Dalai Lama’s power over the people. Either Samdhong Rinpoche is hinting at the Dalai Lama’s waning influence over his people’s actions or something more sinister is at play. Can it be that the self-immolations have been allowed to carry on because the CTA places more value on political maneuvering than they do their own people’s lives? In the absence of strong and continuing support from the international community, the CTA has little else to go by to garner support from the world other than the lives of its own people. Perhaps the CTA was hoping for a “Tibetan Spring”. If so, they totally failed to understand the basis of the success of the Arab Spring or indeed the courageous act of Thich Quang Duc.

In both the Vietnamese and Arab examples, the single self-immolations sparked what was already a brewing sentiment within the community that social injustices were being committed and the people had to take matters into their own hands. The success of the Arab Spring, for example, hinged on the belief that a better alternative to the government or leader was warranted. Without this collective belief, there could not have been a social revolution and it is here that the CTA has fallen short of the mark.

The thrust of what would be a Tibetan Spring must come from the Chinese, the Tibetans and global community at large – people who can no longer tolerate persecutions of Tibetans and have a strong conviction that the CTA can do a better job. The CTA simply failed to fire the imagination and belief of the world community that they can be a better government. This will continue to be the status quo, as long as the world is aware that the CTA remains the only “democratic” institution in the modern world that has persecuted its own people based on religion.

To its own detriment, in allowing over 100 Tibetans to die without any result, the CTA inadvertently highlighted to the Chinese just how little the Tibetan desperation means to the world and what little significance the Tibetan cause retains, in the face of global politico-economic issues. In allowing self-immolations to persist for as long as they have, the Tibetans in fact strengthened the Chinese belief that no one really pays any serious attention to Sino-Tibetan affairs anymore. Samdhong Rinpoche himself alludes to this when he reveals that the self-immolations are not getting the media attention expected due to the economic influence of the Chinese.

Having protested against the Chinese for nearly 60 years, the Tibetans should know by now that the Chinese government does not respond well to threats and blackmail. During the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Chinese government responded to threats of escalating Free Tibet protests by clamping down on travel to the region. Similarly, blackmail only works when you have something of value to the other party and according to the Tibetans themselves, the Chinese government does not value Tibetan lives, especially in light on the apparent fact that neither does the CTA. Why therefore, would the Chinese government be concerned about 100 Tibetans self-immolating?

Far from being a peaceful sight, self-immolations can be very traumatizing for witnesses

Besides the fact that meaningless loss of lives should be discouraged under any circumstances, strategically, it would have been more effective for the Dalai Lama and the CTA to dissuade self-immolations right from the very beginning, to prevent further loss of life with no result. However, considering the CTA’s inability to accept feedback and reasoning, it is unfortunately no surprise that the self-immolations have been allowed to continue for as long as they have.

In addition, self-immolations directly contradict the Dalai Lama’s Middle Way Approach and no matter how some may choose to rationalize such behavior, self-immolations are in no way peaceful – the sight of a burning human being leaves an indelible, traumatic mark on people’s minds that cannot easily be forgotten or removed. With the CTA refusing or being unable to uphold the Dalai Lama’s peaceful Middle Way Approach by strongly discouraging the self-immolations, the CTA themselves are not adhering to their own (former) leader’s policies. Is it any wonder then that their people refuse to follow the advice of such a hypocritical government? After all, why follow the leaders, when the leaders themselves do not follow their leader?

It therefore makes sense that the CTA would continue to promote the Dorje Shugden ban, to provide a scapegoat for their inadequacies. They recognize that their people are frustrated with their lack of results, having already seen through their hypocrisy in upholding their own legislation. If the CTA is able to sacrifice their people for the sake of a Free Tibet, of what value is a deity that they cannot tangibly perceive? It is not surprising then that they can sacrifice Dorje Shugden as a scapegoat for their failure to gain independence, made easier since the Dalai Lama has condemned him as un-Buddhist.

Finally, Samdhong Rinpoche’s statement does reflect well the CTA’s many inconsistencies and double standards, all of which do not endear them to the Tibetan people or the educated world community. Samdhong Rinpoche did not object to Tsetan Dorjee carrying a Chinese flag, when he would normally be branded a traitor for doing so. Instead, Samdhong Rinpoche said Tsetan Dorjee’s act represents their wish for genuine autonomy. Here, a symbol of the enemy is acceptable and yet interestingly, Jamyang Norbu was not accorded the same liberal approach when he appeared in a photograph with a representation of yet another enemy – in his case not a Chinese flag but with Dechen Tulku, a Dorje Shugden practitioner. Jamyang Norbu was instead condemned on a level similar to having committed a crime.

It is clear that what is considered ‘wrong’ in the Tibetan community is up to the whims and fancies of the establishment who dictates to their society what is wrong and right. It is little wonder then that after 60 years, with such a lack of commitment to any one policy, the Tibetans have failed to gain independence for their nation, resorting to the most desperate of measures: taking one’s own life.

In the face of such gloomy prospects, it is evident that after six decades, there is a great need for a change in perspective amongst the Tibetans of their own government and leaders. After all, as Albert Einstein is oft quoted as saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result”. The Tibetans have been doing exactly that in allowing the CTA to continue to get away with a myriad of inconsistent and unfair policies and afterwards cover up the damage with lies. It is therefore to be expected that after 60 years of protesting, the Tibetans have yet to get the freedom and independence they want.

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4 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. I just think as Urgyen Trinley gets older, he looks increasingly like Tenzin Gyatso!!!

  2. 在西藏政治与宗教的自相矛盾和纠纷不清,藏民很明显的被两极给混淆了,又要藏独而又要推动多杰雄登护法禁令。令藏民成为夹心人和自相矛盾,在被政治与宗教的理念伤害,他们觉得很无助和极度失望,所以有人就选择了极端想法,甘愿自焚,牺牲自己来表态 和抗议对政府的不满。整个格局,到底葫芦卖生么要呢?还是没有结局。我想只要多杰雄登护法可以解令,西藏可以一国两制。藏民团结一致,那就可以圆满结局了。

  3. 60 years of injustice is really suffering. It is very shameful for CTA who plays with religion to achieve their political mileage. The desperation of the Tibetan people clearly shown by their act of self-inmolating. Yes, it should be an awareness campaign all over the world to help these people. May the ban be lifted immediately.

  4. I think its such a same that those who self-immolated had wasted their lives for a lost cause as CTA clearly can’t focus on uniting their political opinion. They sway from one opinion to the next depending on their own perception thus confusing people. I have read that Samdhong Rinpoche said the acts of self-immolation should be considered glorious as they are compassionate sacrifices for the good of others. What utter nonsense! Our precious human lives are so hard to come by and to “kill” oneself due to attachment is certainly nothing glorious nor a good motive.

    I wonder why the Dalai Lama had not spoken out to prevent these suicides as his words hold so much power over his people. Just in the case like the ban on Dorje Shugden, they follow his instructions blindly, despite logical explanation given that Dorje Shugden is an enlightened Protector. So why had the Dalai Lama not spoken out? Could it be that he does not feel the pain of his people anymore and as long as it helps to gain some political mileage to his cause, its ok?

    I really do wish that CTA will wake up to the reality that China will not be listening to your “free Tibet” anytime soon nor in the future. Would a powerful country give up a state that it consider to be its own? Would any other country antagonise China when they rather sign trade agreements? When the Dalai Lama passes into clear light (which I certainly do not wish so), the CTA will be in disarray and the future will be terrible for the Tibetans-In-Exile who’s current condition are not so rosy.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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