All is not well in paradise. China has recently stiffened its resolve, not to mention its presence, in the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas of Sichuan province bordering the TAR.
Now, full disclosure before we start: the DLR loves Tibet. The mountains, the monasteries, the, erm, yaks. It’s like the antithesis of our equally beloved Hackney, allowing us to experience both sides of the coin. And the Chinese occupation may have brought infrastructure, medicine and schools, but it’s also brought whole new zones of ugly-ass Chinese new-builds, the destruction of Tibetan monasteries and areas of cultural interest, bulldozed with that typical Chinese zeal and modern lack of aesthetic consideration.
We will admit that the Chinese have also brought good food. Tibetan food is terrible. It’s to be expected: when you live on a plateau several thousand miles above sea level with only a yak to provide your food, you’re going to struggle to produce cordon bleu cuisine. Perhaps cordon bleugh. And yes, we have tried a lot of Tibetan food, and yes we tried it in Tibet. Momos do not a culinary tradition make.
Anyway, back to the narrative. Tibet’s party secretary, and therefore the man who effectively runs Tibet, Qi Zhala (he’s Han Chinese, of course), called on security forces to “strike hard” against separatist and criminal activities, while the deputy party secretary told police to “be on the alert”. Tourist visas will soon be suspended, journalists have been banned and security forces heightened.
The cause of all this nervousness? Last week, riots in Sichuan led to security forces shooting into the crowd. Beijing claims one person died; the Tibetan government-in-exile six. A shame they disagreed, but still, what’s five deaths between friends?
The riots came several weeks before Tibetan new year on 22 February and the 53rd anniversary of the flight of the Dalai Lama to India on 10 March. Perhaps more significantly, they follow the self-immolation of 16 monks and nuns since March 2011 in an irregular series of tragic and public suicides.
These immolations bear a strong resemblance to the South Vietnamese Buddhist crisis immolations that occurred in 1963. Even if you haven’t heard about them, you’ve probably seen the most famous, Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation in Saigon, because the iconic image was used as Rage Against the Machine’s cover art for their eponymous debut. As happens with all good political symbols, they become appropriated by the commercial creative industries, so it happened with Duc burning himself alive.
Self-immolation is a peculiarly effective protest tool. It was, after all, a self-immolation that sparked the Arab spring. The concept of it is so anathema to the human mind that it demonstrates the total desperation of the perpetrator. When one finds oneself in such a situation that protest will not help, possibly because of a repressive regime, then burning oneself alive is a cost-effective, simple form of suicide that is also intensely dramatic and necessarily public. The very fact that immolation appears a terrible way to die to us makes it more effective; a public suicide involving an overdose, shooting or even slit wrists would not seem as theatrical or impressive.
For Buddhists, self-immolation also presents an opportunity to demonstrate the steadfastness and ability to overcome earthly emotions and desires (namely, the desire to stop burning to death really, very quickly, because it’s awfully uncomfortable), by remaining implacable throughout the process. It takes almost superhuman feats of willpower, further emphasising the stark impression of the immolation. Self-immolation also seems to marry well with the Buddhist goal of non-violence, although in truth there is a long history of militant Buddhism. The Ikko-Ikki of Japan, for instance, were 15th century Buddhist warriors, while the Tibetans have not only fielded some of the most powerful armies in Central Asia at certain times, but also saw militant clashes between monastic communities in the Middle Ages in Lhasa. Nonetheless, self-immmolation has been a peculiarly Buddhist monastic tool for protest in modern history.Tibetan nun Palden Choetso set herself on fire in November.
These self-immolations have highlighted the Tibetan cause, but mostly to a constituency already aware of the resistance to China’s rule. It hasn’t really affected opinion in the rest of China, and is unlikely to. The narrative provided by the Chinese government to the population at large differs wildly from that offered by the Western media; it even extends to the tour guides in Lhasa themselves, as Westerners are given English-speaking Tibetans, while the Han Chinese all receive Han Chinese guides who tell a very different story.
So, the melancholic tale continues. Tibet is too strategic for Beijing to cede: it gives China control of vast tracts of land, the headwaters of all the major rivers in South/Southeast Asia, substantial mineral resources and prevents those pesky Indians from influencing the Tibetans to side against China. There has been a steady drumbeat of greater protest from the Tibetans, ever since March 2008 when it kicked off big style in Lhasa, partly as a result of increased Han Chinese migration and partly as a result of the enablers of modern technology more easily proliferating information. But the small Tibetan population and effective Chinese security forces make it very difficult to foresee a revolution in Tibet for some time, no matter how many monks and nuns burn themselves alive.