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The Dalai Lama and Tibetan Religious Freedom

On this day, February 27, in 2009, Tapey, a Tibetan monk, committed self-immolation in Tibet and since then 127 Tibetans have self-immolated in different parts of Tibet and China, with the common message of yearning for the return of their revered leader, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and for freedom, including religious freedom, in Tibet.

Today, the United States released its annual report on the state of human rights for 2013 all over the world; on Tibet they found that the Chinese Government “engaged in the severe repression of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic heritage by, among other means, strictly curtailing the civil rights of China’s ethnic Tibetan population, including the freedoms of speech, religion, association, and movement.”

The above convey the gravity of the current situation of the Tibetan people in Tibet. The Dalai Lama has been leaving no stone unturned in his endeavor not only to look after the present and the future spiritual and social welfare of the Tibetan people, but also to make Buddhism relevant to the 21st century.

During the visit of His Holiness to Washington, D.C. and California in February 2014 (as I write this he is on his way to Minnesota to continue his effort), while there was widespread positive response from the American public, there were also some people in California who organized protests under the banner of “International Shugden Community”. Read More…

What is this “Middle Way” the Dalai Lama preaches?

by Bhuchung K. Tsering

 February 25, 2014
The Dalai Lama unveiled his Five Point Peace Plan

The Dalai Lama unveiled his Five Point Peace Plan, a key milestone for the Middle Way, in the U.S. Congress in 1987.

The latest meeting between His Holiness the Dalai Lama and President Barack Obama on February 21, 2014 has led to some developments, including in the Chinese Government asking the question, “What is this “middle way” the Dalai Lama preaches?” (via a Xinhua report on February 22).If the Chinese authorities feign to know this even after the past many years of dialogue with his representatives, I believe the answer can be got by looking at some outcomes of the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting.

First, the meeting was followed by the most categorical statement to date by the White House about President Obama supporting the Middle Way approach of the Dalai Lama. In diplomacy where each and every word in such statements are weighed, the President not only “commended” the Middle Way approach (as has been done in 2010 and 2011), but also “expressed support” for it. The Chinese Government has sensed this and hence their Xinhua piece as well as the consternation shown by the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman.

Secondly, and equally important is that the White House explained its understanding of the Middle Way. Spokesman Jay Carney told the media on February 21, “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach of neither assimilation, nor independence for Tibetans in China.”

This is very much in tune with the thinking of the Dalai Lama who has always maintained that his Middle Way was avoiding the two extremes: between the present critical situation of the Tibetan people where their very identity’s survival is at stake and the other extreme of regaining Tibet’s independence.

Thirdly, it is also significant that the White House Spokesman says “The United States supports the Dalai Lama’s “middle way” approach…” To me, this indicates that the support is not just the personal belief of the President, but also of the United States Government as a whole.

Therefore, the White House statement not only explains the fundamental concept of the Middle Way, but in the process it is a strong refutation of the Chinese Government’s attempt to discredit the Middle Way.

The Dalai Lama came forth with his Middle Way approach in earnest; as a sincere attempt to provide a solution that is mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and to the Chinese, and which takes into consideration China’s stability concerns. He started formulating this approach internally way back in the 1970s and so when the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping sent a message to him in 1978-79 that other than the issue of the independence of Tibet, everything else can be discussed and resolved, the Dalai Lama was able to respond positively.

Since then the Dalai Lama has stopped talking about Tibetan independence and has been calling for a solution that will enable the Tibetan people to live in dignity by preserving and promoting their distinct identity and heritage.

Diplomatically, the Dalai Lama came out with a series of initiatives, beginning with the Five Point Peace Plan in 1987 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. to the Strasbourg Proposal at the European Parliament in 1988, etc. Instead of responding to these initiatives positively, the Chinese Government has continued to sweep the Tibetan problem under the carpet and to control the Tibetan people by force.

Above all, the Memorandum for genuine autonomy for the Tibetan people, which the Dalai Lama’s envoys presented to the Chinese Government in 2008 clearly spells out the Tibetan position. It outlines 11 areas in which the concerns of the Tibetan people needed to be addressed, all within the framework of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China.

However, China ignores this aspect because it does not fit their political agenda and seek recourse to propaganda.

Those who know the Tibetan issue, know that Xinhua and the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman repeats their well known narrative; since the Chinese authorities lack the political courage to address the genuine concerns of the Tibetan people, they find fault with each and every initiative of the Dalai Lama under his Middle Way approach.

The Chinese Government says, “the “middle way” approach demands independence by its very nature.” But the White House statement reflects the international community’s acknowledgement that the Dalai Lama’s approach is one that is not of independence, but of securing dignity and respect for the Tibetan people while addressing stability concerns of China.

Therefore, if there is one clear political message from the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting, it is this: the United States is against the assimilation of the Tibetan people and that the Middle Way is the solution to the Tibetan problem.

Of Belonging and Identity among Tibetans

My thoughts after reading Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet”

Bhuchung K. Tsering


In the post 1959-Tibetan society, belonging and identity play a critical role in shaping the psyche of the Tibetan people. For Tibetans of the pre-1959 generation, the sense of belonging is more dominant; they have memory of their lives in Tibet before the Chinese and are clear about where they belong.  For example, for Tibetans who had escaped out of Tibet in and after 1959, a critical reason for wanting to regain their homeland is because they “belong” there and would like to return, mentioned in Tibetan simply as, “Bod la lok.”

For the post-1959 generation of Tibetans, the sense of identity plays an equal if not greater role.  Those who have been born and brought up in Tibet are overwhelmed by the direct and indirect attempts to provide them with a “Chinese identity.”

Those of this generation in exile are constantly posed with the question of self-identity; what is our identity? Who am I? Do we belong to something? This sense is all pervasive among the younger generation of Tibetans; it does not matter whether they are stateless, refugees, or individuals who have acquired citizenship of other countries.  All acquired identities were subordinate to the dominant perception that “I am a Tibetan.”

These Tibetans nevertheless are undergoing the same experience of exploration of their own roots, both literally and psychologically.  They have found different ways of expressing their feelings; in the immediate post 1959 period direct political activism was the dominant approach. The young Tibetans are also taught to identify themselves with Tibet in all aspects of their upbringing. Among the first song and dance routine that a majority of Tibetans in exile learnt was one popularly referred to as “Sildan Gangri’ that begins like this: “Surrounded by cool snow mountains; is the pure land of Tibet.”

Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s “A Home in Tibet” is, to me, an encapsulation of these two types of mindsets among Tibetans. Through her mother’s story she expands on the quest for belonging while her own story is that of searching for her identity.

In the prologue, Tsering Wangmo writes about her mother, “All of her exile life she waited to return home.  She spoke of exile as something that would be expunged over time.  When this is over, we can go home.”

But as she details, her mother passed away in a tragic road accident and was not able to fulfill her aspiration of returning to her homeland.

Therefore, Tsering Wangmo’s journey to what is essentially her mother’s homeland in Tibet (because she herself was born in exile) is both a search for her own roots as well as fulfilling the unfulfilled desire of her mother. Read More…

Can Anyone Hear Us?

I was surfing the net and found this video of a discussion in which I had participated some years back.

In July 2010, the National Endowment for Democracy organized a day-long conference on the situtation of the Uyghur people under the topic, “Can Anyone Hear Us? Voices from the 2009 Unrest in Urumchi”

As part of this was a Roundtable Discussion session on whether “the problems in Xinjiang and Tibet unique to ethnic minorities, or are there under-explored commonalities with other marginalized communities in China?” I was one of the participants in this session and the complete list of participants were:

Dr. Dru Gladney, President, Pacific Basin Institute
Bhuchung Tsering, Vice President, International Campaign for Tibet
Dr. Yang Jianli, President, Initiatives for China
Hans Hogrefe, Democratic Staff Director, Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission
Kara Abramson, Advocacy Director, Congressional-Executive Commission on China
Dr. Sophie Richardson, Advocacy Director for Asia, Human Rights Watch

Louisa Greve, Vice President for Asia, MENA, and Global Programs, NED

I shared my view about the existence of a two China mindset in China today; one for the Chinese and the other for the non-Chinese in China.  I mentioned about China’s political claim over Tibet or East Turkestan but at the same time the mindset of treating these same people as “others.”

I hope this video enables you to have a better understanding of the Uyghur and the Tibetan people.

Looking at Chen Quanguo’s Article on Tibet, with more than a pinch of salt

Here is my reaction (originally posted on the blog of International Campaign for Tibet) to this Chinese official’s rhetoric on Tibet.


Chen Quanguo

Chen Quanguo
As part of my work I look at the statements by China’s leaders to see if they reveal anything about the current state of affairs in Tibet. This was particularly so after General Secretary Xi Jinping took over the leadership and people were having expectation that he will be different.
Therefore, it was interesting to read the article by Tibet Autonomous Region Party Secretary Chen Quanguo in the Party journal Quishi, “Ensuring the Security of Tibet’s Ideological Realm with Courage to Show One’s Sword” (Qiushi, No. 21, 2013), which has been translated into English by High Peaks Pure Earth.
It is about how the Chinese leadership should intensify the effort to control the minds of the Tibetan people through the media. People have read this essay as an indication of hardening of Chinese stand on the Tibetan people. In a way, it is, but to me the article has three other points worth noting. Let me expand.
First, the article is a concrete acknowledgement of failure of China’s Tibet policies to date. It talks about “hostile forces” that “have colluded with the clique of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, and have considered Tibet as a key area for infiltration and separatist activities and as the main battlefield for sabotaging and causing disturbances. They have tried all means to contend for the battlefield, popular feeling and the common people, thus, all their efforts have made Tibet the teeth of the storm in the struggle of the ideological realm.”
The article further says, “We will thoroughly carry out the educational activities of comparing Old Tibet with the New Tibet, instructing people of various ethnic groups to be grateful to the Party, listen to the Party and follow the Party.”
In other words, despite more than 60 years after the “liberation” the Chinese authorities have not been able to win over the hearts and minds of the Tibetan people, who are displaying indications of loyalty and reverence to the Dalai Lama.

Read More…

My take on Tibetan Youth and Society in 1990

Recently I had the opportunity to rummage through a box of some of my stuff that I had not touched for several years. In the box was a copy of August 1990 issue of March, the magazine of the Delhi Tibetan Youth Congress. It had carried an article of mine and, since I see its relevance still holds, I am posting it here, even though I can no longer be considered a part of the “young” generation. The article comes with the following note about me: “The author is a former student of Hans Raj College, Delhi University. Presently, he is a deputy secretary in the Office of Information & International Relations, Dharamsala.”

Tibetan Youth and Society

Bhuchung K. Tsering
(Magazine of the Delhi Tibetan Youth Congress)
August 1990

The monthly Tibetan Review carried in its September 1989 issue an article of mine on corruption in the Tibetan community in exile. In that article I have tried to analyze why, despite being a small community, such malpractices as embezzlement, misuse of public fund etc., seem to take place in the various offices under the Tibetan Government.

Since the article’s publication I have had quite a few reactions from both within the Tibetan as well as Indian and Western communities. Some praise me for having the ‘courage’ (I don’t know what they mean by that) to write such a piece. Others castigate me for having written it. In this article I would like to dwell on the latter (the adverse reaction) and attempt to show the importance of social awareness among the Tibetan youth.

Some of the adverse reactions have been conveyed to me directly while a few others have been heard from a third source. First, the reaction among the Tibetan community. Most of the young educated Tibetans appreciate the thrust of the article though some of them feel it would have been better if I had written it in a general way instead of pegging it on some scandals. A few others, mostly officials, feel a bit affected for having dwelt on such negative aspects of Tibetan officials. Among the older Tibetans, again some of them have heard about the article and appreciate it. A few others, I heard this from a colleague in McLeod Ganj, say, “that is the true colour of the Tibetan youths. They bring out the bad things in their own generation” or something to that effect. Read More…

Tibet and President Xi Jinping’s Chinese dream

Chinese President Xi Jinping has talked about making arduous efforts to  achieve what he calls the “Chinese dream” (Zhongguo meng) – a great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Participating in a CNN discussion on the concept,  Wu Jianmin, a former Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, said, “Reemergence of China is the Chinese dream.” He expanded, “China used to be a leading nation in the world for many. many centuries. But in the past two centuries, China lagged far behind the industrialized countries. Chinese were down and out. Chinese always dream of better future.”

More interestingly, Ambassador Wu said “we need rule of law and democracy” in the definition of the Chinese dream adding, “Rule of law and democracy is the goal of our political reform” and  “Xi Jinping was very clear on that. We need rule of law and democracy.”

I had an experience of a different kind of Chinese dream the other day when I attended a talk by a visiting Chinese professor of history.  His topic was the Cultural Revolution in his region.  For more than half an hour, he went into details about the existence of factions and their nature during the Cultural Revolution and how these had impacts on the society. The Chinese professor had collaborated with an American professor in researching on the issue and published a series of articles in international research journals. I thought he was forthright on issues, including in calling the Chinese regime a totalitarian one.

As he ended his remarks and after the chair had taken advantage of his being the chair and thus asking the first question, the next question was posed by an elderly gentleman who asked whether the many articles that he had written were solely in English or also available in Chinese and accessible to the Chinese people in China.  The Chinese professor responded that these were available at his university but not to the general public in China.

This question was followed by others about how the Cultural Revolution was being explained to the Chinese students currently and whether he could use terms such as “dictatorship” (which one questioner said he had used during his presentation here) while teaching to his students in China.

The Chinese professor responded that he was part of a committee discussing content of a text book for high school students in China and that Cultural Revolution was covered in just three pages. He said he would not be able to use terms like dictatorship in China.  In short, it was clear that only sanitized versions of such issues were being made accessible to the Chinese people.

As I sat listening to these I began to realize the existence of another Chinese dream; projecting two versions of China – one for the Chinese public and the other to the international community. Read More…

My Talk in Minnesota on Understanding the Reality in Tibet

My Talk in Minnesota on Understanding the Reality in Tibet
March 31, 2013

A shortsighted and meaningless effort by the Chinese Consulate in Chicago to propagandize about Tibet at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis led to an opportunity for me to go there and share my views on Tibet. The Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, the Students for a Free Tibet, Tibetan Youth Congress and the Tibetan Women’s Association in Minnesota asked me to come and be a part of the activities to present the Tibetan viewpoint so that we could challenge the Chinese exhibition on Tibet that was being organized in the University.
So, I spoke on March 27, 2013 at the venue of the Tibetan people’s exhibition on Tibet at the University, which was next door to the one organized by the Chinese students and funded by the Chinese consulate (the story of how the Chinese had to cancel/withdraw their activities in the light of this Tibetan onslaught is a different story, some of which have appeared in the local newspaper, Star-Tribune). I titled my talk “Reality in Tibet Today.”
In my talk, I talked about the different aspects of the Tibetan issue, including political, environmental, human rights angle, and how His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan side had responded positively to Deng Xiaoping’s message that “other than the issue of independence everything else can be discussed and resolved.” I said His Holiness had not only presented his Middle Way Approach as a response but that he had also prepared the Tibetan people to accept that this was in the best interest of both the sides. I told of my own experience of interacting with ordinary Chinese and how we Tibetans have been educated by His Holiness to differentiate between Chinese Government and people and how we should be reaching out to the people. I said, however, the Chinese side had not fulfilled their part of the commitment made by Deng Xiaoping about everything else could be discussed and resolved. The Chinese side has also not prepared the Chinese people and instead is projecting the Tibetans as being against the Chinese people.
But this blog is about another talk that the organizers had arranged for me, which was to the Tibetan community. This took place on March 26, 2013. Despite it being a weekday and people had to go to work, there was a reasonable turnout of Tibetans, old and young. Read More…

It is now the Chamdowas dominating the Tibetan leadership in Lhasa

Here is an analysis that I did on one aspect of the new leadership in Lhasa.

It is now the Chamdowas dominating the Tibetan leadership in Lhasa

Bhuchung K. Tsering

March 19, 2013

The appointment of Jampa Phuntsok (Ch: Qiangba Puncog) as a Vice Chair of the National People’s Congress on March 14, 2013, completes an interesting development in the regional representation in the top Tibetan leadership in Lhasa.  This new development could be said to have begun when Pema Thinley (Ch: Padma Choling) assumed the Governorship of the Tibet Autonomous Region in 2010; it is now the Chamdowas, the people from Chamdo (Ch: Qamdo) in Eastern Tibet, who hold all the highest Tibetan leadership positions in Lhasa and Beijing.

Earlier this year, we had Pema Thinley becoming the Chairman of the TAR People’s Congress; Phakpalha Gelek Namgyal (Ch: Pagbalha Geleg Namgyai) was reappointed as head of the TAR PPCC; and Lobsang Gyaltsen (Ch: Losang Jamcan) has become the new Governor of the TAR. Except for the top position of the Party Secretary, which continues to be in the hands of a non-Tibetan, these three positions are the highest in the region. All three individuals holding the positions are from present-day Chamdo Prefecture (Technically, Phakpalha was born in Lithang, but he is the recognized lama of Jampaling Monastery in Chamdo and is popularly known as Chamdo Phakpalha. Similarly Lobsang Gyaltsen was born in Dagyab, which is also in present-day Chamdo Prefecture).  At the national level, Jampa Phuntsok has become the highest rank Tibetan official now and he is also from Chamdo.

The fact that they are all from Chamdo region could be coincidental, but if we look at popular perception of Tibetan history in modern times we see that there have been periods when elites from a particular area dominated the leadership positions in Lhasa. Read More…

NPR’s Talk of the Nation Discussion of Tibetan Self-Immolations

Yesterday, February 20, 2013, I participated in a discussion on the Talk of the Nation program on America’s National Public Radio (NPR). Below is the transcript of the same as posted on NPR’s website.  You can also listen to the audio recording here. I thought Michael Biggs from Oxford succinctly put the development in Tibet in the broader context of self-immolation as a form of protest.


Flames Of Protest: The History Of Self-Immolation

February 20, 2013

More than 100 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese rule, according to Tibetan advocacy groups. Self-immolations in Tunisia and Vietnam also gained international attention, but the motives and effectiveness of the practice are widely debated.


Michael Biggs, lecturer in sociology, University of Oxford
Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program, Columbia University
Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs, International Campaign for Tibet


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I’m Neal Conan in Washington. A grim milestone last week in Tibet: Over the past four years, more than 100 people have now set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule. According to the campaign, International Campaign for Tibet, at least 85 died following their protest.

The practice of political suicide is not new. During the Vietnam War, a horrified world saw pictures of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc sitting calmly as his body burned in a public square in Saigon. Two years ago, the self-immolation of Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi inspired protests that developed into the Arab Spring.

Thus far, more than 100 such acts appears to have effected little change in China. Later in the program, we’ll talk about the anatomy of a successful movie trailer, but first self-immolation and politics. We begin with Michael Biggs, a sociologist at the University of Oxford. He joins us from BBC Studios there. Welcome to the program.


CONAN: And I have to ask you, I know you’ve looked into it – why – and it’s hard to answer this question – why does someone set themselves afire, kill themselves, to effect change and harming only themselves?

BIGGS: Well, I think we can distinguish two different motivations, although they’re often combined in a single action. So one motivation is to show a distant audience, an audience far away that doesn’t understand your situation just how badly your group is or your group of people is suffering.

So in the example from Saigon in 1963 that you mentioned, the aim was very much to speak to an American audience, to show the American public just what was going on in South Vietnam under the government that was sponsored by the United States.

And so the idea is to speak to, to address and to get the attention of a very distant audience. That’s the first sort of motivation. The second motivation is to strengthen the resolve of your fellow people. So now you’re directing your action, or your action is mainly intended for your local audience. But you’re wanting to say, you know, we need to show greater resolve, and I’m willing to kill myself, and so I hope that my fellows will be willing to perhaps take part in the street demonstrations or to do some other more modest action for our collective cause.

CONAN: I read in a piece you wrote for Foreign Policy titled “Ultimate Sacrifice” that in fact this act has caused the definition of the word immolation to change.

BIGGS: Yes, I mean classically immolation means sacrifice. I mean, the etymology is sacrifice. And yet since the 1960s it’s now come more and more to be used to mean death by fire or a fiery death.

CONAN: And fire, why – this – is the act augmented by choosing such a painful death?

BIGGS: Yes, I think it’s obviously – partly we can find earlier examples of suicide protests, earlier in the 20th century. So for example in Japan, Japanese people protesting against the exclusion of Japanese from the United States in 1924, they committed suicide by disemboweling themselves, the sort of traditional Japanese seppuku. So we find suicide protests earlier, and it’s really this action in 1963 that attaches suicide protest with fire and that now most cases, the vast majority of cases of suicide protest are carried out by fire.

It’s partly because of this terrible – the fact that it’s a very painful death. It’s also a very visually – you can capture this on film and you can show a picture of this in a way you can’t show a picture of someone being disemboweled. So it’s a very kind of tele-visual protest.

And also, it also has a kind of cultural resonance in some cultures in the way that fire is purifying. So for us, I think, in the Christian tradition or the Western tradition, fire is often kind of horrifying. But of course in Buddhist or Hindu traditions fire has much more a positive resonance of something that’s purifying and holy.

CONAN: You wrote in that piece that the monk in Saigon in 1963, that changed things. Among those horrified by it was President Kennedy.

BIGGS: Yes, exactly, yes. He realized that the effect on American public opinion, also global public opinion – remember, of course, the United States was in a Cold War, and this was terribly bad publicity for the Western side. If you say, you know, that here’s our great democracy in South Vietnam, and yet a Buddhist monk is willing to set himself on fire to protest against religious persecution, then that’s very, very bad for – it was used by the communists as propaganda, and of course it was very bad for the West.

So the feeling was we have to make sure this regime changes.

CONAN: And it did, in an American-sponsored coup just a couple months later.

BIGGS: Yes, exactly, yes. So that’s a very clear connection between the action, these actions – and of course there were lots of other protests going on as well, street demonstrations and so on, by monks, and that very clearly and quickly led to the overthrow of the government.

CONAN: Yet we have in the case of Tibet over 100 now, and as mentioned, very little change.

BIGGS: Yes, I think that the situations are very, very different because of course the – well, the Tibetan cause already has considerable amount of sympathy among the Western public. But of course there’s nothing that Western governments can do or want to do in forcing China. China is a major power, and you cannot boss China around like the United States bossed South Vietnam around.

CONAN: And also those images, they do get out to the West, but they are not seen in China.

BIGGS: Yes, exactly, and so China can censor at least the majority of the Han – the local majority population, the Han Chinese, from seeing these. And even if they did see them, I’m not entirely sure that – I mean Chinese nationalism is very strong, and so I’m not sure that they would garner such great sympathy. But that’s of course speculative.

But it’s not – you know, it’s certainly not the case that the Tibetans have been trying to speak directly to the Chinese public, or the majority Chinese public.

CONAN: Joining us now to talk about Tibet is Robert Barnett, director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, author of a number of books, including “Lhasa: Streets with Memories.” Thanks very much for being with us today.

ROBERT BARNETT: My pleasure.

CONAN: And what’s the cause of this recent wave, the past four years of these horrible protests?

BARNETT: Well there’s of course a long history of 60 years of rather troubled rule by China in Tibet in which the Chinese have been really rather aggressive in trying to persuade Tibetans that they are Chinese and a part of China. It hasn’t really worked. But the thing that seems to spark this in an area which had been relatively calm for some 30 years was a decision in about 1998 to ban the photographs of the Dalai Lama and quietly to ban worship of him.

This had already been done in western Tibet a few years earlier, but from ’98 they began to push this idea, this policy across the eastern areas which had been much more relaxed after the death of Mao and where people had been allowed to practice religion, at least to a considerable extent.

So a very big change there in religious policy, particularly about the Dalai Lama and a number of other issues: nomads being made to settle; language, Tibetan language being gradually withdrawn from schools; very strong controls on information and travel; these kinds of issues as well. But I think the religious question is primary.

CONAN: Those of us in the West might see this as a sign of despair. Do you find that to be accurate?

BARNETT: It’s hard to say. I mean I think that we have to listen carefully to what Michael said about this being a way to try to reach the ears of important people. Of course Westerners and exiles tend to see it as trying to reach the ears of the international community, but I think as Michael explained it’s really about trying to get the Chinese leadership to pay attention to what’s happening in their far-flung western areas.

And this may be a way to also – I don’t know if it’s to rally the community, I don’t think that’s an intention of these immolators, but it’s a way to express a real commitment to their cultural and religious ideals. It’s probably not thought through as a deliberate strategy. It just makes huge sense within the terms of traditional Buddhism, the idea of self-sacrifice for a noble cause, that’s very strong in Buddhism, and the idea that there is something here that’s been threatened: the culture, the language, the religion, and the nation, really, by current Chinese policy.

But it’s not a clear political movement or a specific strategy.

CONAN: We mentioned there had been little change. There’s been little reform. There has been a change, and that has been, of late, a crackdown by the Chinese government.

BARNETT: Yes, it’s very interesting. In the first like year and a half or so of these terrible self-immolations in Tibet, the Chinese officials were very uncertain about how to proceed. But the realized very quickly they shouldn’t criticize monks, and instead they started to say that the monks, most of the first year, the first 40 cases or so were monks or nuns or former monks.

And they didn’t criticize them, but they criticized the people around them, who they accused of helping them. And they regarded the immolators as, quote, innocents. But recently, in the last two and a half months, they’ve very radically changed this approach and begun to arrest almost anybody they can find in some areas who they can accuse of inciting immolations.

It seems to be anybody who expresses the idea that an immolation is justified in Buddhism or is noble. These people seem to be arrested in some areas. It’s not the same in every area, but it’s – they’re offering large amounts of money for information about immolators. One person has already received a suspended death sentence for supposedly inciting immolation.

It looks to me that he just expressed support for the notion and said the people who’d done it were heroic. So we’ve moved into a very aggressive phase here, trying to contain this wave.

CONAN: Michael Biggs, let me ask you. As Robert Barnett just mentioned, the first 40 or so were monks or nuns or ex-monks. Now it has begun to widen. There are people from all walks of life who’ve now become immolators in Tibet. What’s the significance of that?

BIGGS: Well, I suppose it shows the incredibly, the incredibly positive resonance that these actions have with the general public, with the general Tibetan people. And we find a similar pattern in South Vietnam, where first of all it was monks, and then ordinary lay people began to copy the action as well. So I think it shows just how not popular but how much symbolic resonance this action has with the ordinary people, who see this as a, you know, exemplary action by monks; a few brave people who are not monks will try to imitate and strengthen the cause by following in the same, in their footsteps.

CONAN: We’re talking about self-immolation. Our guests: Robert Barnett, he is the director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University; Michael Biggs is also with us, you just heard him, a sociologist who studies social movements and collective protests at the University of Oxford. Stay with us. When we come back, we’ll get to the Tibetan perspective. I’m Neal Conan. It’s the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Neal Conan. When Thich Quang Duc self-immolated in Vietnam in 1963, journalist David Halberstam was there. In his book “The Making of a Quagmire,” he remembered that day. Please note the description is graphic.

Flames were coming from a human being. His body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh. Human beings burn surprisingly quickly, Halberstam wrote. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered even to think.

Today we’re talking about recent self-immolations, more than 100 in Tibet in the last four years now. Michael Biggs of the University of Oxford and Robert Barnett of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University are our guests. Joining us now is Bhuchung Tsering, vice president for special programs at the International Campaign for Tibet. He’s been kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A. Welcome to the program.


CONAN: And I – what’s been the response to these immolations among Tibetans?

TSERING: I think there are two broad responses, and we’re talking about Tibetans in the free world, not inside Tibet. First is the strong emotional connection that people have sort of got upon learning from these reports, these emotional connections both of sorrow that yet another Tibetan has died, just like in the case of yesterday, and at the same time admiring their courage of willingness to do the utmost for the sake of their people. So that’s one aspect of it.

The other aspect is to say what is there that we can do outside that really you cannot at all match what the people inside Tibet have done but that can really help change the situation for the people inside Tibet to no longer have to do those things. Read More…


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