Ngawang Tharpa never met his cousin, but he knew all about him. “He was becoming very popular in China. And that’s why the Chinese don’t want to speak about him,” Tharpa, who was born in the Tibet Autonomous Region but escaped Chinese occupation in 1995, told VICE World News. “He was young, and kind. He had a good life.”
Reports say Tharpa’s cousin Tsewang Norbu, a Tibetan pop singer, chanted “Free Tibet” and then set himself on fire in front of hundreds of people. Then his body disappeared.
Radio Free Asia reported Norbu died of his injuries on February 25 in Tibet’s capital Lhasa in front of the Potala Palace, a former residence of the Dalai Lama and a site of Tibetan resistance against China. The Tibetan Parliament in Exile published his obituary last week, but noted that “details about his death are still unclear.”
The pop star has drawn renewed attention to the Tibetans who set themselves ablaze for their freedom, and the lengths Chinese occupiers go to put out the fire.
Any mention of Norbu’s death in the Chinese internet has been deleted by state censors. Tsering Kyi, a Tibetan author and journalist based in the U.S., has been documenting the censorship. “In a sense, Tsewang Norbu has disappeared both physically and in the online world,” Kyi told VICE World News. She added that so far, Chinese officials have arrested two Tibetans for “leaking” information on Norbu.
Tibet has been occupied by China since 1951, and while the Chinese claim they are liberating the Tibetan people, scores of monks have set themselves on fire in protest since 2008. The International Campaign of Tibet (ICT), a global Tibetan advocacy group, has documented at least 158 protest self-immolations since 2009.
But in the history of self-immolation as an act of defiance, Norbu stands out as an exception. He was not a monk seeking religious freedom, his popular music wasn’t overtly political, he was well on his way to stardom, and his parents were, in fact, affiliated with the Chinese state.
Kyi calls Norbu the “Justin Beiber for young Tibetans.” The 25-year-old, with a glamourous up-and-coming music career, had over half a million followers on Weibo. He was a crowd favourite on popular Chinese reality singing shows. Occasionally, he would cover famous English songs.
A screengrab of Tsewang Norbu (middle) at a Chinese singing competition. Photo provided by Tsering Kyi
“In Lhasa, you will hear Norbu’s songs being played in hotels, restaurants, markets, and even in taxis,” Kyi told VICE World News.
Norbu and his family were quite comfortable under the Chinese authorities. Norbu’s parents are both musicians affiliated with the state: His father used to be the head of a state-owned performance arts department, and his mother is a popular Tibetan singer who often sings in Chinese. Norbu graduated from Tibet University in Lhasa, and had a government music teaching job, which he quit to compete in Chinese talent shows such as Sing China, Tibetan Pop Concert of China and Road to Star.
Chinese assimilation campaigns in Tibet claim to be “peacefully liberating” Tibetan peasants from oppressive theocracy, and seek to replace their culture, language, education – their identity – with Chinese systems.
“Someone who was a poster boy of assimilating with the Chinese system took his life in this overtly political protest. This makes Norbu’s self-immolation even more powerful.”
Dr Timothy Grose, a professor of China Studies at the Rose‐Hulman Institute of Technology in Indiana, U.S., said that Norbu’s music wasn’t “overtly political” in the Tibetan music landscape that is otherwise subversive or underground, with acts heavily using traditional Tibetan instrumentation to show pride in their culture. Instead, Norbu’s music was more “globalised and international.” “There are bits where you hear Black Eyed Peas-type hip-hop, or there’s some rap to it,” Grose said.
Norbu’s death came as a surprise to Grose. “Someone who attained rare achievements in the Chinese system, and was a poster boy of assimilating with the Chinese system, took his life in this overtly political protest,” he said. “This makes Norbu’s self-immolation even more powerful.”
Tharpa, a former member of the Tibetan Parliament in Exile, said he was also shocked when he heard about his cousin’s death.
To paint a picture of what happened on February 25, Tharpa draws from the versions his sources in Tibet told him. One source said Norbu arrived at a heavily crowded Potala Palace, shouted “Free Tibet,” and set himself on fire. So intense was the blaze that Norbu died on the spot, the whole thing witnessed by hundreds. “In Lhasa, there are so many CCTV cameras,” said Tharpa. “It’s easy to track people who were taking pictures, and censor this news.”
VICE World News could not find any official statement from Chinese officials with regard to Norbu’s self immolation.
China usually calls self-immolations acts of “terrorism,” and suppresses facts around them. In 2013, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV turned around the narrative of a self-immolator, and put the blame on the U.S., which has consistently supported the Tibetan cause. Chinese officials have also previously blamed self-immolations on exiled Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama, who has been living in India since 1959.
A closer look at Norbu's background and artistry would bear out the display of patriotism that surprised observers and his followers.
Observers say Norbu was never overtly political, but his self-immolation has sparked interest in subtle undertones of his work. Photo provided by Tsering Kyi
Kyi and Tharpa said the prominent political prisoner Lodeo Gyatso is Norbu's maternal uncle, who has been in prison for decades for defying Chinese rule.
“It is largely the [Chinese] state that determines what is political in Tibet,” said Kyi, adding that Norbu’s politics in music was subtle. His more recent works were largely Tibetan and English songs, not Chinese. The Economist article noted that Norbu avoided “red songs” often performed by his mother that praised the Chinese Communist Party, but instead, his videos showcased Tibetan landscapes and cultural markers.
“It is largely the [Chinese] state that determines what is political in Tibet.”
“Norbu’s death has shown that the wealth and glamour that the Chinese Communist Party provides isn’t enough to weaken Tibetan identity, pride and deeper political aspirations,” said Grose.
Norbu is the latest on the International Campaign of Tibet's list of self-immolations, and the organisation states that he is “believed [to be] deceased.”
However, journalists and advocacy groups outside Tibet still can’t confirm Norbu’s death.
Last week, The Economist cited a Chinese foreign ministry official claiming Norbu might still be alive. The official claimed that Norbu’s “attempted suicide” by self-immolation was caused by “mental illness,” and that it wasn’t his first attempt at suicide.
Tharpa said the Chinese officials blaming self-immolations on mental health issues or financial problems is common. “They just don’t want people to know the realities,” he said.
Tsering Kyi, who has been in exile for 23 years, said she has covered over a hundred self-immolations in Tibet. “I always find it hard to get essential details due to restrictions and communication blockage imposed by China,” she said. “Many times, Chinese authorities refused to return the body to families. Many still don't know whether their kin are alive or not.”
On March 10, which marks the Tibetan Uprising Day, several Tibetan protesters in different parts of the world came out on the streets. Some held photos of Norbu. Photo: International Campaign for Tibet Brussels/ Facebook
What makes access to information worse, said Grose, was the “absolute silence” on Chinese social media about Norbu. But amid the silence, the professor discovered a smattering of speculation in English. “This could be a way to circumvent censors, because there is no mention of his death in Chinese,” he said.
On YouTube, though, fans are commenting on his older videos. One comment calls him a “Tibetan hero”, while others call his self-immolation a “sacrifice” for Tibetan freedom. “We will never forget,” read another one.
Dorjee Wangmo, a Tibetan journalist in India, told VICE World News that incomplete narratives on Norbu are raising even more questions. The confusion also raises questions about the actual number of self-immolations. “The death of Shurmo, another case of self-immolation, took five years to come out. There could be others that never [became known] past the borders,” said Wangmo.
“If the Chinese are able to limit the information on large-scale operations [such as the “re-education centres” for Uyghurs], it’s conceivable for them to censor self-immolations,” Grose said.
In the meantime, Radio Free Asia reported another self-immolation last week, by an 81-year-old Tibetan man outside a police station in the western Chinese province of Sichuan. He was reportedly taken away by the police. His fate remains unknown.
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