Public Comment

New: Self Immolations and Tibet

By Tenzin Dorjee
Thursday January 26, 2012 - 09:17:00 AM

The Mayan prophecy that the world will end in 2012 has spawned hundreds of books, films, plays and satires. Although the public fascination with apocalyptic stories does not necessarily translate into real belief, I admit to secretly subscribing to an alternative vision of a 2012 apocalypse—one where the world is cleansed of tyranny, colonialism, and totalitarianism.  

If the watershed events of the past year were any indication, we have reason to believe that in 2012 dictatorships everywhere will have a harder time withstanding the wave of resistance that is brewing in the streets, on the web, in the tea houses, and in people's minds.  

Barely three weeks into the year, we're seeing groundbreaking change in Burma, where hundreds of political prisoners have been released and Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being a prisoner of the state to the nation's most esteemed stateswoman. As the structures of oppression fall—whether in neighboring Burma or in distant Tunisia— the democratic pressure on China intensifies.  

Tibetans are at the forefront of this revolutionary wave. In the last 11 months, 16 Tibetans have set fire to themselves in protest of Chinese rule, laying bare the colossal failure of China's colonial project in Tibet. The self-immolations—as overwhelming as they are underreported—are a flashpoint for the growing resistance movement in Tibet. Beijing is quickly learning that it can imprison Tibetans, but not their ideas, their words, or their dreams.  

In spite of China's pitch-black oppression, Tibetans are charging forward, armed with their nonviolent weaponry of political protest, economic noncooperation, civil disobedience, cultural renaissance and social innovation. And while we have been devastated by each incident of self-immolation, we have also been inspired by the unparalleled courage and sacrifice that motivated these acts. 

It was with a similar courage that a hundred years ago, on March 26, 1912, Tibetans formally declared war against Imperial China, effectively ending the Manchu invasion of Tibet. In 1913, the 13th Dalai Lama formally declared Tibetan independence.  

2012 marks a century since the collapse of the Manchu empire. My vision of apocalyptic change in China does not seem out of place at a time when people across the Chinese empire are restless for freedom from corruption, inequality, pollution, poverty and repression. The message from Tibet is clear: there is no turning back. I believe Tibetans will once again be ready to seize the moment and restore Tibet's independence, taking our rightful place in the global community of sovereign nations.  

My belief in this future is reaffirmed every day, not only by the tectonic political shifts that are changing the world beneath our feet, but also by my personal interactions with friends and strangers - sometimes at the most unexpected moments.  

A few days ago at the Kalachakra in Bodh Gaya, India, I saw a middle-aged woman with a familiar face walking past me. I caught her attention with a respectful nod and asked, "Achala, have we met before?"  

She smiled and replied in impeccable Lhasa dialect, "Not sure... but where are you from?" Answering that I was from New York but previously from Dharamsala, I asked where she was from.  

"Well, I'm from Lhasa," she replied courteously. With a Lhasa accent that strong, I thought to myself, it was almost unnecessary to name the place.  

"Oh, really?" I couldn't conceal my excitement at meeting someone from Tibet. "I must have seen you in Lhasa then; I was there in 2007 for a few days. I must have seen you in Bharkor Square."  

"Ah, that explains it," her eyes twinkled. I could tell that she felt extremely fortunate to be one of the few thousand Tibetans to cut through China's nightmarish political restrictions to attend the Kalachakra in India. As we parted, she held my hand tightly in a way older Tibetans do when saying farewell to close relatives. With a calm yet intense gaze, she said:  

"We will meet again. I think we will all meet again, very soon, back home."  

We both knew what she meant. I said, yes, we absolutely will.  

Tenzin Dorjee is the Executive Director of Students for a Free Tibet, a global grassroots network of students and activists working for Tibetan freedom. 

He and the group’s former Executive Director, Lhadon Tethong, along with Jigme Ugen, President of Minnesota Tibetan Youth Congress, will be speaking about the recent spate of self-immolations in Tibet at the following event: "TIBET BURNING : Resistance and Repression in Tibet Today" 

When: Friday, Jan 27 from 7PM
Where: UC Berkeley
(Evans Hall, Room # 60)