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Last-words analysis – Why Tibetans Self-immolate? By Wang Lixiong
Phayul[Thursday, December 27, 2012 12:40]
By Wang Lixiong

Translated by Ogyen Kyab

Now, the question of Tibetan self-immolations involves multiple issues that nobody knows how to handle.

Firstly the increasing frequency of the self-immolations – 97 cases in Tibet (excluding 5 outside Tibet) so far (till December 11, 2012), out of which 1 in 2009; 12 in 2011 and 84 in 2012, 28 Tibetans self-immolated in November alone. Calls to stop self-immolations have not worked, nobody knows what to do.

Secondly it is a dilemma – so many people have set themselves on fire, so negating the self-immolations would be unfair to the self-immolators and hurt their families; on the other hand, reporting, praising, holding praying ceremonies, paying condolences and donations etc would be seen as encouraging more to self-immolate.

Thirdly the government criminalises the self-immolations which have been caused by its own repression, and keeps repressing and even intensifies it. This makes those who try to stop self-immolations on humanitarian grounds find themselves tangled with the government.

Fourthly outsiders sympathise the self-immolators but they cannot understand it as they cannot see self-immolations effective. After the initial shock, with increasing cases of self-immolations, they become numb.

Fifthly the Tibetan elites complain about the silence of the international community and Chinese intelligentsia. This is actually due to lack of theoretical support to the self-immolation movement. However, the Tibetan elites besides merely affirming the self-immolations subtly, they lack the substantial insight to lead.

Sixthly all governments take evasive stand towards the Tibetans for their own selfish interests. In a world where economy rules, it is not surprising to see such rationale of economised men. Though Tibetans get a lot of attention as compared to the other nationalities (condition of the Uyghurs is worse), the feeling of being abandoned is never less.

To resolve this issue, or at least to know how to respond, we have to first know what are the aspirations of the self-immolators and what they are seeking. There are different interpretations regarding this, people even interpret the way they want. I think with no ample information available about the self-immolators, a statistical analysis would enable us move closer to seeing a complete picture of the self-immolations.

Since the first self-immolation by Tabey in Tibet in 2009, Woeser has always been simultaneously recording each and every case of the self-immolations, consolidating all the cases and updating her blog Invisible Tibet every now and then. In this article, information used in my statistical analysis has been taken from her record.

Another thing to clarify here is that the main responsibility for the self-immolations lies with the Chinese government and there is no doubt in this. I’m not going to repeat this fact; instead, I want to do some constructive discussions.

Distribution by number of self-immolators and months

When the monthly number of self-immolations for 2012 is shown (see the graph below), we see two tallest bars for March (10 cases) and November (28 cases).

In March, there were many anniversaries such as Tibetan National Uprising Day (March 10), anniversary of 2008 pan-Tibet protests (March 14), anniversary of mass killing of protesters in Ngaba (March 16), the Chinese government-invented “Serf Emancipation Day” (March 28), so we can reasonably suspect that the tall bar for March has to do something with these occasions, generally they were protests against the Chinese ethnic policies. To protest was the main motive.

Self-immolations by Tibetans inside Tibet for 2012
Self-immolations by Tibetans inside Tibet for 2012


The tallest bar falls in November in which the 18th Party Congress of CCP was held. The bar before that, for October, is as tall as for March, 10 cases each, this should also be related to the Party Congress, which was widely rumored to be held in October. Frequent self-immolations around the Party Congress can be understood as inducing the new generation of Chinese leaders to change its policy on Tibet, making self-immolations as actions to push for change – this should actually be the key to understanding the self-immolations.

Classified analysis of self-immolators’ last-words

Analysing the self-immolators’ last-words is another way to further understand their motives and aspirations. All the last-words I’m going to analyse were left behind by the self-immolators before self-immolating, which were manually written pieces, voice recordings and also those that were verbally told their relatives and friends. So far last-words of 26 self-immolators are known. Besides this, slogans shouted by many self-immolators have also been recorded and these slogans are more or less consistent, most of them are “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet”, “Free Tibet” etc. Comparatively, the last-words left carefully before self-immolating are more comprehensive in contents than the slogans shouted while burning; hence they are worthier of special analysis.

I have classified the last-words into seven categories by contents (see the table below). Each last-word may not necessarily have only one type of content, there are different types in many of them (a more detailed classification can be seen in the notes at the end of this article). This is my approach to attempt understanding the self-immolations; anyone is free to use one’s own approach to do the same.

Classification table of last-words

(Last-word classification) (No of last-words involved) (No of self-immolators involved) (Ratio of no of self-immolators to no of self-immolators who left last-words (%))
1 (Because it’s unbearable) (5) (5) (19%)
2 (Expressing courage and responsibility) (8) (9) (35%)
3 (Protests and demands) (5) (5) (19%)
4 (Demanding attention from the international community) (1) (1) (4%)
5 (Praying for the Dalai Lama) (9) (10) (38%)
6 (Demanding Tibet’s independence) (5) (5) (19%)
7 (As an action) (12) (14) (54%)

Note: As there are cases of 2 self-immolators leaving 1 last-word, so the no of self-immolators who left last-words is not the same as the no of last-words

• Self-immolations are actually not out of desperation
Commonly interpreted – including the officials of the Tibetan government-in-exile – that the self-immolations are desperate acts caused by the unbearable conditions, we cannot deny this claim, but it’s only 19%, the weightage falls in the lower part in the seven classifications.

• The self-immolators inside Tibet are not invoking support of the international community
Another widespread view is that the self-immolations are acts of appealing for the attention of the international community. However, except writer Godrup, none of the last-words mentioned this and so this has the least weightage in the list. This reveals that the Tibetans inside Tibet do not actually rely on the international community as people think for granted. In fact, it is the self-immolators outside Tibet (not included in the table above) who seek international support, Jamphel Yeshi mentioned it twice in his last-words and Sherab Tsedor called for international attention for the Tibet crisis. To seek the support of international community has actually always been the main objective of the Tibetans outside Tibet; it is where they focus even today. This is the major difference between the Tibetans in and out of Tibet.

• Protests and demands in the self-immolations are known
19% of the last-words express protests and demands, but while self-immolating, those who shouted slogans like “Let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet”, “Free Tibet”, “Release the 11th Panchen Lama”, “We want language rights” etc, are also expressing protests and demands and thus should also be counted. Besides, majority of the self-immolators, though have not left any last-words, the acts of self-immolations themselves are acts of protests and demand, this cannot be clearer.

• Those that best reflect Tibetan national spirit and courage
Out of all the last-words, 35% express courage and responsibility. This category is actually not directed towards others (neither the authorities nor the international community), but rather more of a reflection of heroism in the personality itself, it is a nirvana-like self-sublimation performed by defending dignity, sharing pain, inspiring courage and expressing solidarity. Typical last-words are “setting on fire for the dignity of the Tibetan nation” (Bhenchen Kyi), “They think we are afraid of the repressions, they are mistaken” (Phuntsok) etc, reflect the most precious power of spirit of the Tibetan people.

• As acts of religious dedication
Self-immolations as acts of praying for the Dalai Lama (meanwhile protests against the authorities) account for 38%, second in the list of classifications. There are cases in this category that also have elements of expressing courage and responsibility; these are dedications and offerings with religious nature. For example: Sopa Rinpoche said in his last-word that he would be offering his life and body to the Dalai Lama and even the entire sentient beings. It is not easy for non-religious people to understand this – setting one’s own body on fire as an offering for nothing else but merit.

• About Tibet’s independence
Four self-immolators clearly call for independence of Tibet in their last-words, another one says to “defend the country Tibet” by self-immolating (Tamding Thar), this category has 19%. Several others also shouted for Tibetan independence while self-immolating. Since 2008, sense of independence has spread widely among the Tibetans. However, the Tibetan exile writer Jamyang Norbu equates all those who demanded for return of the Dalai Lama with demand for Tibet’s independence (see MAKE IT A BURNING ISSUE), the analogy is far-fetched.

• Self-immolations as actions
14 self-immolators in 12 last-words call their immolations as actions. This category has the highest weightage (54%), like the most frequent cases of self-immolations during the 18th Party Congress, the self-immolators expected that their sacrifices would help realising the goal, not merely express protests and desperations. They were actually not sure if the self-immolations would really help realizing their goal; Tenzin Phuntsok has said in his last-words that he “cannot live to wait in vain”. These really sad words should actually be the key to understanding the self-immolations, worth thought over.

Tibetans inside Tibet have finally realised that the struggle has to be on their own

The Tibetan issue has not progressed for so many years. Tibetans have always been hoping that others would do something for them – Tibetans inside Tibet pinned their hope on those outside Tibet and those outside Tibet initially pinned their hope on the international community and then on the Chinese government. The basic strategy has always been hoping that the international community to put pressure on the Chinese government to make concessions.

The Dalai Lama’s success in seeking the support of the international community has been widely acknowledged. He has become a universally celebrated global star and people in the West are overwhelmingly sympathetic of Tibetans. But as far as seeking support of the outside world is concerned, this is all, no more can be expected. Even when China was in dire need of western assistance in 1980’s, it did not make any concession on the Tibetan issue, the chances are slim to expect the west to put pressure on the today’s already “risen” China to make concessions.

China resumed the stalled Sino-Tibetan dialogue in 2002 and thereafter held series of talks with the Dalai Lama’s envoys till 2008 but that was, from the start, China’s design to appease the western world for the successful hosting of the Olympic Games. However, the exile Tibetans took it as a rare opportunity finally arrived and expected excitedly to obtain some substantial progress out of it. Tibetans in Tibet too patiently waited in optimism. Eventually at the eve of Beijing Olympics, the Dalai Lama announced in his speech on the occasion of March 10 Uprising Day, “My envoys held six rounds of talks with the Chinese government, but sadly, no substantial result has come on basic issues, in contrary, the Chinese government even intensified its repression on the Tibetans in Tibet.”

The Dalai Lama’s announcement should be his last attempt to call for international pressure on China before Olympics, but anyone who knows the CCP would know that there would be no concession on Tibetan issue even if the Olympics could not be hosted. As expected, the subsequent actions by the west proved ineffective, even the toughest French softened its stance in the end. These inconveniently prove that the Tibetan exile government’s strategy – to gain concessions through international community – has never worked.

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama’s announcement awakened the Tibetans inside Tibet. Their patience finally wore out in their endless waiting, during which Panchen Lama was imprisoned, Karmapa fled, the Dalai Lama were constantly defamed and demonised, and so many years of waiting had produced “no substantial outcome”. When the Sera monks first heard the announcements, someone immediately said, “We must rise up now”, and the monks took to the streets of Lhasa with snow-lion flags in the hands and started shouting slogans. This was the first cry of the 2008 pan-Tibet protests. In the afternoon of March 10, hundreds of Drepung monks protested and the Chinese so-called “March 14 Incident” that rapidly spread across the Tibetan plateau.

According to Woeser, the current self-immolation protests are continuations of the 2008 pan-Tibet protests. In fact, continuations of the first Sera monk who stood up and said, “We must rise up now”.

How Self-immolation becomes movement

People who are not organised and lack in resources cannot do much, what we can imagine is the kind of 2008 street protests. When the public is frustrated, a tiny spark can ignite a raging fire of mobs to quickly converge and expand. In small-scale societies, adequate scales of mob protests may be able to force out changes, but in such huge-scale societies like China, minorities cannot achieve this. In 1989, when tens of millions of Chinese took to the streets in many parts of China, the regime did not hesitate with repression and shed blood. Tibetan population merely accounts for a tiny fraction of Chinese, how can they be an exception? When soldiers and policemen are deployed everywhere to suppress, public protests become all the more difficult and “must rise up” can only be an individual behavior. How can a tiny individual resist the mighty power of the state? After the 2008 Tibetan protests ended in repression, many lone Tibetans continued to take to the streets, shouting slogans and distributing leaflets, the outcome was always the same – they all quietly disappeared. How can individual actions burst out of this disappointing submersion? That is to resort to more extreme ways of protests, as the writer Godrup says in his last-word, “Let’s intensify our peaceful struggle.” Self-immolation is the most extreme act of struggle an individual can resort to.

The frequency of self-immolation cases is indeed rising with an alarming speed. The self-immolations are seen throughout the world and reported, recorded, prayed for, paid condolences, and the other Tibetans see this and think that this is an effective individual action to protest and thus follow the examples, with more and more Tibetans setting themselves alight, it becomes a self-immolation movement.

Like monks leading the 2008 Tibet protest, self-immolation movement was also started by monks. Since Tabey from Kirti monastery setting himself on fire in February 2009, all the initial 12 self-immolators were monks (Note: I consider those who were expelled from their monasteries after 2008 pretests as monks). It was in December 2011 that the first layperson self-immolated. In the first quarter of 2012, 15 out of those 20 self-immolated were monks; in the second and third quarters, laypersons were already in majority; in the first 70 days of the fourth quarter, 50 self-immolated and 43 of them were laypersons.

When I was thinking why the ordinary Tibetan people joined the self-immolation movement, I recalled what a Tibetan woman once said to me, “Except giving birth to couple of more children, I’m not capable of doing anything else for our nation.” Similar feelings can be seen in the last-words of Tenzin Khedup and Ngawang Norphel – “We are neither able to contribute anything for our culture and religion, nor do we have the ability to help the Tibetan people economically, so we …….choose to self-immolate.”

61-year-old Dhondup repeatedly called for the monks and young Tibetans not to self-immolate and retain lives so that they could contribute to the nation’s cause in future, signaling only the older generation should self-immolate. Once the ordinary people come to know that apart from knowledge and wealth, self-immolations too work for the cause, they would be aroused to resist the authorities and courageously go forward to self-immolate.

At such times, it is not surprising that Karmapa Rinpoche’s appeal to them not to self-immolate due to life being precious did not work, as they exactly wanted to sacrifice what were most precious to them. Woeser, Arja Rinpoche and the poet Kathup Tsering also attempted to call Tibetans not to self-immolate and said that being alive could only be possible to do something effective. Their attempt too failed because the self-immolators did not know what they could do by being alive but self-immolations could at least break the prevailing silence. Therefore these brave Tibetans need to be told what they could do besides self-immolations, not to be asked to remain alive to be merely mute spectators waiting in vain.

Self-immolations are not only protests against the oppressors, but also criticisms against the leaders

I don’t feel comfortable about what I’m going to discuss now, digging out the in-depth meaning of the self-immolations should actually be done among the Tibetans themselves, but seeing so many lives being burnt, I have no option but to leave my own concerns aside.

In the battlefield, blaming the enemy for killing is not wrong but useless. To win, the more valuable thing to do is self-reflection and improvement. Sacrifices of the self-immolators become wastes if they are dealt with by merely confining on condemning the oppressors. Tibetans in Tibet are waiting for the exile government to do something; they are coming forward and setting themselves on fire one after another, the exile government should at least realise from this that the path it has been taking should be reviewed.

The path that the older generation took might be necessary during their times, but now the Tibetans in Tibet are pleading through self-immolations to the new exile leaders not to repeat the same path.

So far, there is no sign that the exile administration realises this. When Sikyong Lobsang Sangay was answering a question asked by the Asia Weekly in an interview that if he was confident of resolving the Tibet Issue through negotiations with the Chinese government, he said, “Of course I’m confident. There was a Chinese scholar who once said that Tibet issue could be immediately resolved if there’d be an open-minded person who figures out how to deal with the issue, I too think that way.”

This way of outdated thinking makes people recall of the times of 1980’s. After Lobsang Sangay took office, he has been travelling around the world, meeting political dignitaries, giving interviews to media, attending meetings; everything that he has been doing is absolutely tracing the same path of gaining international support by putting pressure on China to make concessions. As for winning support of the international community, the Dalai Lama has already done it all. It’s ok for once and may be even twice, but not the third time, 1989 and 2008, after hitting twice on the wall, the exile government is repeating the same for the third time.

Anyway, perhaps the self-immolation movement in Tibet is seen as a new opportunity, a Tibetan called Weirang wrote at a site overseas, “Tibetans did not self-immolate in vain, recently there were many large-scale Tibetan protests in Amdo, these are the results of the self-immolations……I believe, one day, like 2008, a massive protests will again sweep across Tibet." So he criticised those Tibetans who appealed not to self-immolate and said, “This is ridiculous, in case the appeal succeeds to stop the self-immolations, then our compatriots have died in vain and our struggle will be halted.”

The way Weirang thinks is indeed worrisome. When self-immolation is considered as a means to achieve a political end, one would naturally wish more Tibetans to set themselves on fire. Forget about the moral right and wrong, what Weirang thinks disregards the “moral high ground”, as if in politics, only achieving goal should be considered and that goal can be pursued through any means – even if we think in terms of achieving a political goal, self-immolations won’t achieve it. Suppose self-immolations can lead to pan-Tibet protests like that of 2008 (given the prevailing tense situation, it is difficult now), and then what? They could ruthlessly suppress the 2008 protests, how could this time be different?

However, politicians, to whom the end goal means everything, may indeed expect such a repression to repeat. Because such repressions would draw international attention, when more blood is shed, more pressure would be put on China by the international community. However, here we’ve come back to the previous argument, self-immolation is just a different incentive, the outcome would again be the same. An authoritarian power neither would care about the self-immolations, nor scared of shedding blood. The international community didn’t turn tough on China for June 4th massacre, this time on Tibet too, they wouldn’t. In nutshell, whatever is happening in reality, none is not confirming this very fact – relying on the international support to resolve the Tibet issue is no more than an illusion.

Just because of the increase in the number of self-immolations, it has drawn attention of the international community, but all the governments are avoiding offending the Chinese government, however, meanwhile, they are also giving more support to the exile Tibetans to balance morality and appease their own peoples. But this case, only the exile Tibetans can enjoy this support. However, although getting something is better than nothing, but I don’t believe that it is this support that makes the exile Tibetans to expect more self-immolations by the Tibetans in Tibet.

Tibet needs to get out of the crisis. For this, Tibetans outside Tibet need to command the struggle for freedom to make the millions of Tibetans inside Tibet become the main force to join the struggle; when Tibetans in Tibet know where the path is, they would live and advance towards the promising future, not jump into the flames.

Note: Detailed classification of self-immolators’ last words

1. Because it’s unbearable

Phuntsok – I can’t go on bearing the pain in my heart, I’ll show the world a signal on March 16, 2011

Rangdol – Unable to continue staying under this harshness, can’t tolerate this torture without trace.

Tsering Kyi – Nobody wants to live this way.

Tamding Tso – It’s really difficult for us Tibetans, if we can’t even keep His Holiness’ photos, then we don’t have any freedom.

Sangdak Tsering – Tibetan has no freedom, His Holiness is not allowed to return, Panchen Rinpoche has been imprisoned; besides, so man martyrs have self-immolated, therefore, I too don’t want to live, there’s no meaning in living.

2. Expressing courage and responsibility:

Phuntsok – they think that we’d be afraid of oppression, they are mistaken.

Tenzin Phuntsok – All the khenpos and monks of the Karma Monastery would rather die.

Sopa Rinpoche – All the other self-immolators are also like me, sacrificed their lives for truth and justice ……. I’m too willing to offer my body to support and respect.

Rangdol – Hold your heads high for Rangdol’s dignity.

Choepak Kyab & Sonam – Setting on fire for the basic human rights of Tibetans and world peace; for the nation’s freedom, prosperity of Dharma and happiness of all sentient beings.

Rikyo – Willing to endure pain for all the suffering sentient beings.

Khenpo Thupten Nyendak – Told his family prior to his self-immolation that he would soon make a grand offering to those who had self-immolated for the common cause of Tibetans.

Bhenchen Kyi – Said to her friend before self-immolation, “We have no any freedom. I’m self-immolating for the dignity of Tibetan nation.”

3. Protests and demands

Tapey – New York Times reported Tapey “has left a piece of paper, saying that he would commit suicide in case the government banned the religious ceremony”.

Lhamo Kyab – A Tibetan in Tibet wrote an article saying that Lhamo Kyab had asked prior to his self-immolation that “when would the 18th Party Congress be held?”

Nyingkar Tashi – Release the Panchen Rinpoche, let His Holiness the Dalai Lama return! I self-immolate to protest against the Chinese government.

4. Demanding attention from the international community

Godrup – Unbiased peoples around the world please pay attention to justice; I wish people of the world support us.

5. Praying for the Dalai Lama

Rickyo – For His Holiness to return to Tibet.

Sopa Rinpoche – I want to offer my life and body. It is for the long life of leader of the heaven and earth His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual leaders, I offer my life and body as madala to them; may the merit and power of this offering enable all sentient beings attain the Buddhahood in future.

Rangdol – May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live long!

Tamding Thar – May His Holiness the Dalai return home!

Tenzin Khedup & Ngawang Norphel – We self-immolate for the Tibetan nation, especially for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live long and return to Tibet as soon as possible.

Godrup – To greet His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return is the weal and woe all people of this snow land share and our collective goal.

Samdup – May His Holiness the Dalai Lama live long; may the light of happiness shine on the land of snows.

Kelsang Jinpa – For equality of nationalities, freedom of Tibet, promotion of Tibetan language, and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return, I’ve decided to self-immolate.

Nyinkar Tashi – Let His Holiness the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.

6. Demanding Tibet’s independence

Godrup – After regaining independence for Tibet, to greet His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return is the wish of all people of this snow land share and our collective goal.

Nyinkar Tashi – Tibet needs freedom, independence.

Tamding Thar – To defend the country Tibet, I’m self-immolating.

Rangdol – May the Tibetan nation break away from the Han monsters!

Sangay Dolma – Tibetans need freedom and independence.

7. Self-immolation as an action

Tenzin Phuntsok – When I think of Tibet and this year’s sufferings of the Karma Monastery, I can’t live to wait in vain, when I think of the plight of the khenpos and monks, what is the use of worrying? Let’s rise up!

Sopa Rinpoche – Support and respect by offering my flesh and blood.

Choepak kyab & Sonam – Self-immolate for the suffering of Tibetan nation having no basic human rights and for realising world peace.

Rikyo – For His Holiness the Dalai Lama to come back to Tibet.

Tamding Thar – To defend Tibet country, I’m self-immolating.

Tenzin Khedup & Ngawang Norphel – We are neither able to contribute anything for our culture and religion, nor do we have the ability to help the Tibetan people economically, so we self-immolate for the Tibetan nation, especially for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live long and return to Tibet as soon as possible.

Godrup – To testify and propagate the true situation inside Tibet, we need to intensify our struggle, self-immolate to call for Tibet’s independence.

Dhondup – Always appeal to the monks of Labrang Monastery and the local young Tibetans not to self-immolate, they should retain lives to contribute to the nation’s future ……. Only he and other older people should choose to self-immolate.

Samdup – I self-immolate for Tibet.

Kelsang Jinpa – For equality of nationalities, freedom of Tibet, promotion of Tibetan language, and for His Holiness the Dalai Lama to return, I’ve decided to self-immolate.

Kalsang Kyab – Before self-immolation, called his cousin brother on the phone and said, “I’m going to self-immolate today for our nation’s cause.”

Lobsang Gedun – Told on the phone before self-immolation, “I have a wish, people from all the three regions of Tibet get united, stop infighting and disputes, only then our wishes will come true.”

Note: This article Last words Analysis – Why Tibetans Self-immolate by Wang Lixiong was published on the 35th issue of the Sun Affairs Weekly. Article submitted by the translator Ogyen Kyab.


The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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