Flame On!

Tibetans have become so desperate for autonomy that they've taken to lighting themselves on fire. We contacted Stephanie Brigden to find out more about burning yourself alive in the name of protest.

Cell phone photos of one of the 11 (and counting) Tibetans who have incinerated themselves in 2011.

With the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement getting all the retweets and Facebook “likes” of late, it’s easy to forget that Tibet was once the cause du jour, attracting the attention of celebrities like Richard Gere and the Beastie Boys. And while the mainstream press now largely ignores the plight of the Dalai Lama and his fellow countrymen, the region remains firmly under China’s thumb. But things have been steadily—and quite literally—heating up since Free Tibet bumper stickers went out of style.

Tibetans have become so desperate for autonomy that they’ve taken to lighting themselves on fire. So far this year, 11 Tibetans have self-immolated, all of them Buddhist nuns, monks, or ex-monks. We contacted Stephanie Brigden, director of the Free Tibet campaign, to find out more about burning yourself alive in the name of protest.

VICE: Is there a particular reason so many Tibetans have self-immolated this year?
Stephanie Brigden:
I think what is important to remember is that self-immolations are practically unprecedented in Tibet. There was one in 2009, but prior to that there has never been a history of self-immolations. The Tibet movement is probably the most famous nonviolent protest movement in the world, and we’ve now come to a point where the situation has become so desperate that people would choose to take their own lives. I think that’s quite interesting when you compare that with the situation in the Middle East, where you had a young man who self-immolated in Tunisia. That triggered a whole set of events across the Middle East, and the international community responded because it’s an oil-rich region. Tibet, on the surface, looks like it doesn’t have much to offer the West, and people are ignoring it.

How did this self-immolation movement—if we can call it that—start?
The first self-immolation was a 20-year-old guy called Phuntsog. He self-immolated on the third anniversary of a protest in his town in Sichuan province, during which Chinese security forces opened fire and killed civilians. Some of the subsequent self-immolations have tried to repeat what the others have done. For instance, during the last self-immolation the nun went to exactly the same place and self-immolated at the same time of day as the other monks from her town. Many of the monks have cried out either “Freedom for Tibet!” or “Tibetan independence!” before self-immolating.

Do you believe that the multitude of protests and uprisings around the world this year have influenced this recent wave of self-immolation?
There were widespread protests in Tibet in 2008, and these were the beginnings of what we think is going to be an escalation of protests that may spread across the region. What has been different between this and the previous protests in Tibet is that Tibetans are really conscious of getting striking images to the outside world. I also think you shouldn’t underestimate that China is doing everything in its capacity to stop this, from shutting down internet cafés to restricting telephone lines. More frighteningly, they are arresting people and creating a climate of intimidation. But frankly, I think people now feel that if they haven’t got the courage to give up their lives, they can at least risk imprisonment and probably torture to ensure that their message reaches the masses.