Self-immolation (setting yourself on fire as a form of protest, rather than because you enjoy watching your skin blister off) has become something of a symbol for the Tibetan struggle against Chinese rule. It's been going on for years, but after a recent resurgence in the ultimate display of civil disobedience, the Chinese government have decided to try and bring an end to Tibetans coating themselves in petrol and lighting a match in a bid to restore “social harmony”.
Their method of doing so was to post a notice in the Kanlho area offering around £5000 to snitches willing to dob in fellow Tibetans who plan on committing the 'crime' of self-immolation. Rather than quash these acts of rebellion, however, further suicides by fire actually led to the highest incident level on record, with seven Tibetans taking their own lives during one week at the end of October. Astoundingly, it seems the oppressed are unwilling to grass up their friends and neighbours for a bit of cash, with immolations carrying on into November, including the first incidence of a triple immolation.
To learn more about the implications of China’s tactics, as well as Tibet's future, I spoke to Stephanie Brigden from the Free Tibet organisation.
VICE: When the Chinese police posted this bill, they seemed to be trying to suggest that it was in the best interests of the Tibetan people. I guessing there’s probably a bit more to it than that?
Stephanie Brigden: To put it into perspective, the amount of money the police are offering – 50,000 Yuan – is around a year's wage, even for a Chinese government official. It was obviously an effort to turn Tibetans into informants, but highlights China's complete failure to understand what’s motivating protests. If Tibetans are willing to douse themselves in petrol and set themselves on fire, the offer of money isn't really going to quell that desire for freedom.
It already doesn't seem to be working.
Exactly. The notice was issued on the 21st of October and someone in the same county set himself on fire the next day. Within five days, four more Tibetans had been added to the tally (a tally that has increased to seven after the four most recent incidents). That week was the highest number of Tibetan self-immolations that we've ever documented. If China thinks they can buy off Tibetans then they're terrible mistaken.
Do you think the increase in frequency was a direct reaction to this notice?
We don’t actually have any specific evidence. We don’t have letters from people who have set themselves on fire saying, “This is what I think of an offer of a reward”. But I don’t think it’s a simple coincidence that the highest number of self-immolations we’ve ever documented was immediately after this notice was published.
Do you think there’s any other way the Tibetans can be appeased, or is the only way through…
Freedom. Tibetans being able to determine how they’re governed. Probably like many Chinese citizens, Tibetans don’t want to be ruled by a bunch of unelected men thousands of miles away in Beijing, maintaining their iron grip on the people through the military and police and intimidating and coercing the population. I think it’s interesting that two thirds of the Tibetans are under 25 years old. That means they know nothing other than China’s occupation, yet they still reject it.
They can't remember living in freedom, but they’ve heard about it and they’re still striving for it. They want to live in a country where they can show their own flag without fear of being arrested, they want to be able to go to an internet café and not have to show ID purely because of their ethnicity. Irrespective of whether you can recall a free Tibet, young Tibetans are still absolutely certain that a free Tibet is something they want and something they are willing to struggle for.
After the self-immolation of Dorje Lungdup in November, there was a massive police presence, with internet and mobile communication being interrupted. Do you reckon the Chinese government are using these incidents as validation for their intrusive presence in Tibet?
I’m afraid to say that China doesn’t really think it requires any validation to increase its military presence. Every single case of self-immolation is greeted with an immediate influx of military and security personnel. Other acts of intimidation are also upsettingly common, with officials going door to door and taking names, as well as military blockades and that kind of stuff. It's happening in every town and village in Tibet. We were recently chatting with Chinese citizens who'd travelled as domestic tourists to Tibet and even they were shocked by the military presence.
What would happen to prospective self-immolators if they were caught?
Free Tibet has documented 63 self-immolations since 2009 and we know 15 people have survived, but we don’t know where they are or what their state of wellbeing is. We do know that the first Tibetan monk who set himself on fire – Tabe – was detained by security personnel, then paraded on Chinese television and ordered to denounce his actions. It's unclear whether he did that under duress or not, but we do know that he's never been allowed to return to his home or meet his family.
Jesus. What's happened to other survivors?
One was kept in hospital, but was actually being mocked and sworn at by doctors as part of the disciplinary process. In lots of towns and villages where there’s been self-immolations, scores and scores of Tibetans are disappearing or being detained, regardless of whether they have actively taken part. These individuals are being locked up and sentenced from anywhere from six months to a lifetime, simply for having been in the vicinity. The authorities aren't providing evidence and torture is being used as the basis for getting confessions.
The Dalai Lama recently said that he’s expecting some sort of change when Xi Jingping comes into power. Do you think that's valid or just blind optimism?
I think his holiness is underlining that it simply can’t carry on like it is. It’s impossible for China to maintain its grip on Tibet and think that protests can just continue to be swept under the carpet. The UN’s hand has been forced and they’ve finally made a statement condemning what’s happening in Tibet, with the British government following suit.
Yeah, I don't see how this can keep going on.
The international community is increasingly concerned about China’s rise. We used to think that it was going to be “The Gentle Rise of China”, but I think there’s now a genuine concern about China’s role on the international stage, given its atrocious human rights record. In a matter of days, the next set of Chinese leaders will be taking power, ruling over millions of people in China and Tibet, and there’s a really big opportunity for change. China can't continue to ignore the demands of Tibetans and ordinary Chinese citizens any longer.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @spirit_of_yoof
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