New Delhi, Feb. 3: A crowd of Tibetans came here last week, bearing flags and political banners and a bittersweet mixture of hope and despair. A grim countdown was under way: the number of Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule had reached 99, one short of an anguished milestone.
Yet, as that milestone hung over the estimated 5,000 Tibetans who gathered in a small stadium, so did an uncertainty about whether the rest of the world was paying attention at all. In speeches, Tibetan leaders described the self-immolations as the desperate acts of people left with no other way to draw global attention to Chinese policies in their country.
“What is forcing these self-immolations?” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, asked in an interview. “There is no freedom of speech. There is no form of political protest allowed in Tibet.”
Billed as the Tibetan People’s Solidarity Campaign, the four-day gathering featured protests, marches, Buddhist prayer sessions and political speeches in an attempt to push Tibet back onto a crowded international agenda.
If the Arab Spring has inspired hope among some Tibetans that political change is always possible, it has also offered a sobering reminder that no two situations are the same, nor will the international community respond in the same fashion.
“The world is paying attention, but not enough,” Sangay added. “There was a self-immolation in Tunisia which was labelled the catalyst for the Arab Spring. We’ve been committed to non-violence for many decades. And how come we have been given less support than what we witnessed in the Arab world?”
Yet even as the self-immolations have become central to the Tibetan protest movement, a quiet debate has been under way among Tibetans who are anguished over the deaths of their young men and who question how the acts reconcile with Buddhist teachings.
Again and again, speakers emphasised that the Tibetan movement remains non-violent and that the people who have self-immolated harmed only themselves.
“None of them have tried to harm anybody else,” said Penpa Tsering, the speaker of the Tibetan parliament, which is based in Dharamshala. “None of the 99 people have tried to harm any Chinese.”
The Tibetan self-immolations began in 2009 as protests against China’s rule in Tibetan regions of the country. At least 81 Tibetans have died after their acts, and nearly all the self-immolations have occurred inside Tibet, with news smuggled out via email or through networks of advocacy groups.
The Chinese authorities have responded by taking a harder line. Last week, a Chinese court handed down stiff sentences to a Tibetan monk and his nephew on charges that they had urged eight persons to set themselves on fire, according to Chinese state news media.
The Chinese government has blamed the Dalai Lama for inciting ordinary Tibetans to carry out self-immolations. Tibetans rebut the claim.
“What are you left with?” Penpa asked. “The only thing you can do is sacrifice your life.”
For more than a half century, India has been the primary host of exiled Tibetans and many of the people who flocked to New Delhi came from special Tibetan villages elsewhere in the country. Lobsang Thai, 28, who came from Karnataka, said: “I don’t think it is about right or wrong. That is the only thing we can do without hurting other people. That’s the best way to get the world’s attention.”
Tenzin Losec, 42, who is from Chhattisgarh, agreed. “This is very sad for us,” he said. “But people inside Tibet, they have no other way. They have no rights.”
Sangay and others want the UN to push China to improve conditions in Tibet and to allow inspectors to tour the region. “The Chinese government should feel pressure to do something,” he said. “This is leading to a vicious cycle: hard-line policies, protests, repression, more hard-line policies, more protests, more repression.”