In spite of some positive advancements, the rising epidemic of self-immolation in Tibet is a marker of a nation struggling under a repressive regime
Since China marched into Tibet in 1949, efforts have been made to eradicate the essence of Tibetans as a distinct people. The Cultural Revolution, orchestrated by Mao Zedong, spearheaded a policy which attacked the spiritual heart of Tibet – its monasteries and daily religious life – and the steady erosion of Tibetan cultural autonomy has continued since.
The Chinese government has routinely undermined any possibility of Tibetan self-determination, resulting in a recent spate of violent self-immolations across Tibet and its neighbouring provinces. The plight of the Tibetan people has been cast into the spotlight once more, finding expression in a final act of immolation; a drastic response to the undermining of Tibetan culture, language, religion, and identity, as orchestrated by the Chinese government. In 2012 alone, there have been almost 40 cases of self-immolation – 32 of these have been fatal.
Tibetan culture and nationality centre heavily upon Tibetan Buddhism, and these religious beliefs form the social fabric of society. However, the ideological notion of an assimilated Chinese nation does not sit comfortably with an autonomous Tibet, resulting in the severe curtailment of religious freedoms by Beijing.
As a consequence of China’s occupation, both before and during the Cultural Revolution, 6000 monasteries and nunneries have been destroyed in Tibet. Although since the mid-1980s the Chinese government has made attempts to restore numerous monasteries, these remain firmly under the ideological and administrative control of the People’s Republic of China. In its 2011 International Religious Freedom Report, the US State Department commented: “There was a marked deterioration in the government’s respect for and protection of religious freedom (…) Official interference in the practice of Tibetan Buddhist religious traditions generated profound grievances and contributed to a series of self-immolations by Tibetans.”
The Chinese authorities regularly carry out ‘patriotic re-education‘ campaigns in monasteries and nunneries. In this compulsory programme, Tibetan Buddhists are forced to denounce their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom they hold as sacred, and are ‘educated’ instead to swear allegiance to the State and Communist Party. Attempts by the government to control religious practice extend right to the core of Tibetan Buddhism. In one of Beijing’s most infamous moves, the Panchen Lama, the second highest authority in Tibetan religion and identified directly by the Dalai Lama, was detained at the age of six along with his family. The have not been heard from or seen since. Beijing has however, offered its own Panchen Lama for Tibetans.
In order to ensure Tibet’s place in the modern world, the government is repressing Tibetan culture by making the language redundant in all sectors. Not only does this limit the employment opportunities for Tibetans, but they are also compelled to learn Chinese. In essence, it is a policy designed to formulate a more conducive kind of Tibet, one in tune with the modern aspirations of a rapidly expanding China.
The Chinese have often been at pains to describe the positive developments they have helped generate in Tibet. At the core of Chinese ideological narratives is the belief that Tibet must modernise and develop in order to realise its potential, and subsequent prosperity. These are perhaps not entirely inaccurate beliefs. Tibet, before the invasion of China in 1949, was a feudalistic theocracy with harsh social disparities. Comparing the GDP per capita, life expectancy, literacy rates, level of infrastructure, and foreign investment between modern and 1949 Tibet, there are clear leaps forward in all areas as a result of China’s investment and involvement.
However, although positive developments may have helped the Tibetan economy, its negative effects have become increasingly prominent. Since the creation of the Tibetan ‘Autonomous Region’, in spite of having invested $13.8 billion dollars, the material benefits have failed to reach the majority of Tibetans. Eighty-five per cent of Tibetans live in rural areas outside the major towns of Lhasa and Shigatse, earning little more than a dollar a day. It has been easy for Chinese nationalists to claim that such existing disparities identify the region as requiring further engagement and development. In fact, Beijing’s paternalistic tendencies have only ever revealed one reality: what is needed is not greater engagement, but greater disengagement.
Tibetans have never been consulted about their micro-managed move into ‘modernity’. Instead, they have been subject to a brutal and repressive Chinese invasion, with the concomitant hallmarks of any occupation: the destruction of many cultural artefacts, mass imprisonment, torture, executions, and a deliberate attempt to destroy their socio-cultural identity. The key issues are not whether the railways, TV stations, or even the roads have ruined Tibet, but rather concern over the subtle purposes they serve within a greater policy framework; to facilitate the immigration of Han Chinese and other non-Tibetan groups, altering the demographic realities in the region.
Generally, Tibetans do not seek independence or separation from China. Tibetans simply seek a genuine autonomy within China that safeguards their religion and culture. The story of a proud people trampled beneath the cultural and political hegemony of a great power has many historical resonances: the suffering of native Americans at the hands of settler populations, the tragedy of the Aboriginal populations in Australia, and the proud defiance of a Palestinian people in the face of a callous occupation. Similarly, Tibetans, with their rich cultural traditions, are being pushed to the fringes of society. With an epidemic of self-immolations reminding us of struggles in a faraway land, one would have hoped that modern sensibilities were now evolved enough to respect indigenous people’s rights.
Image from: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Tibetan-Buddhist-Monks-Light-Yak-Butter-Lamps-at-a-Full-Moon-Ceremony-Posters_i3985795_.htm
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