On Wednesday, March 14, 38-year old Tibetan monk Jamyang Palden set himself on fire in protest of Chinese oppression. According to Voice of America, he is the 28th person to self-immolate since February 2009. Earlier this February, an 18-year-old nun named Tenzin Choezin also set herself on fire.
Both are believed to have survived, but these extreme acts and deaths from other self-immolations in the past year have served as the rallying point for some of the most violent protests in Tibet since March 2008, when the outbreak was intended to coincide with the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the approaching 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's exile. In a video showing what is believed to be a group of monks chanting around a semi-conscious but living Jamyang Palden, there was a gathering outside the temple with hundred of monks and locals converging on Dolma square in the county of Rebkong. There were high-pitched shouts of excitement and a general chaos among the crowd that belied a rather organized mass protest.
According to witnesses, protestors who self-immolated all demanded greater freedoms in Tibet and the return of Dalai Lama. The Chinese government's response since the rise in acts of violence in 2008 has been a military crackdown and lockdowns of several Tibetan villages. They have also declared these self-immolators to be "criminals ... with a 'very bad reputation.'"
There are numerous sources of discontent among Tibetans. Many indigenous Tibetans feel that rapid development has encroached on their way of life. The Qinghai-Tibet railway that opened in 2008 has undeniably generated a boom for the Tibetan economy and raised the standard of living for nearly all Tibetans, but at the same time the line has brought many tourists, immigrants, and migrant laborers from all over China. The local demographic make-up has fluctuated due to the greater number of non-Tibetans coming for work, much to the dismay of local Tibetans. Their sentiment is not dissimilar to citizens in other parts of China where a strong sense of regionalism has generated a simmering contempt for the influx of people from other regions as a result of the fundamental shift in Chinese economy that has encouraged rural to urban migration. Natives of a region often reminisce about the days when their city belonged to them, and not to a bunch of "foreigners" who couldn't even speak their language properly (in addition to the national language of Mandarin, China has 14 language groups and more than one hundred dialects). In a country with 1.3 billion people and a rapidly changing demography, social tensions cannot be avoided.
Even Tibetans themselves are divided over the problem of Tibetan freedom: Some want to protest against the oppression of religious and cultural expression by the Chinese government, while others simply want societal stability. "We are all Buddhists, but I don't agree with the self-immolations. That is the act of extremists," said one monk interviewed by The Guardian's Jonathan Watts. "We need peace."
International attention given to the issue of Tibet has been one of sympathy and solidarity with the Tibetans. This Western “Tibetophilia,” as Brendan O'Neill of The Guardian argues, "is not a passion for freedom, but a disgust with modernity." In fact, O'Neill continues, Western solidarity is a "deeply narcissistic project, where the west [...] seeks to find fulfillment in the always-preserved 'pure east.'" This position suggests that there is an implicit desire to protect a sacred, spiritual land that is being bullied and defiled by the cold, dirty hands of a modern industrialist tyrant. If this is indeed a prevalent view in the international community (as we can observe in high-profile campaigns to preserve Tibetan religion and culture from celebrities such as Richard Gere), then the basis of Western advocacy is missing the point.
In a study conducted by the East-West Center in Washington, the dispute between China and Tibet lies primarily in each side's interpretation of history. Within the last fifty years, the People's Republic of China has cultivated the view that Tibet has always been an "integral part" of China since the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. To renege on that position would be to undermine the sense of national identity that the Chinese government is founded upon and subsequently derail the linear, but at times contradictory official narrative. On the other hand, Tibetans argue that they've never truly belonged to China nor were they ever subordinate to the dominant power. Instead, they've always exercised de facto self-governance, and Tibet's interaction with China was more of a "priest-patron" relationship than a subject-master one. The truth lies somewhere in between, but the discussion of history must be left for another article. Therefore, to promulgate Tibetan self-determination, the focus must not only be on religious and cultural freedom, but on historical political legitimacy as well.
Unfortunately, even top leaders from the Tibetan government-in-exile such as the Dalai Lama have been reduced to viewing Tibet through the prism of international sympathy for the need to preserve the spiritual purity of the land from a rapidly modernizing world. The Tibetan drive for political independence has diminished, and now activists mostly urge China to respect human rights, cultural expression, and allow the return of the Dalai Lama. However, Tibet's self-distancing from a position based on historical legitimacy only serves to weaken its case in the eyes of top Chinese leadership, and at its worst results in a stale debate in which the main parties are arguing about different things.
Aside from the Tibetan struggle that has been symbolic of the discontent from all politically oppressed peoples within the past year, the significant increase in the standard of living has been beneficial for all Tibetans since the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Tibet will probably not advocate for full independence simply because their economy depends on the thriving Chinese economy. The ideal outcome for Tibet would be an attenuated form of political autonomy, complete religious and cultural freedom, and economic interdependency.
Hopefully there will be greater dialogue between Tibetan and Chinese leaders that will culminate in mutual understanding of the issue that needs to be resolved or at least addressed, instead of arguing on different points. Also, there needs to be greater drive and mobilization for human rights from the larger Chinese community as well as a more nuanced understanding from Western activists and sympathizers. It is on the point of human rights in addition to the acknowledgement of a complex political history, involving both Tibetan political autonomy and subordination,that Tibetan activists will gain the most support from discontented Chinese and the larger international community.