Tibetan Buddhist Monks Set Themselves on Fire to Protest Chinese Oppression

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The first self-immolation attempt in March was timed to coincide with the day the 2008 riots in Tibet against Chinese oppression began. It was reported that 18 people died in those disturbances. But the 2008 unrest was not the largest protest Tibet has witnessed against Beijing. In 1959, Tibetans staged an armed uprising against the Chinese presence that the Tibetan government-in-exile claims cost 80,000 Tibetans their lives. It also caused the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and Nobel peace laureate, to flee the country. He now lives in India, which has a large population of Tibetan exiles.

Like all communist countries, the major preoccupation of the Chinese government is internal control, especially when it comes to separatist tendencies. Beijing justifies its rule of Tibet by claiming its 1950 invasion ended the country’s feudal system and brought modernization. In a classic case of blaming the victim, the Chinese government asserts the Dalai Lama, his government-in-exile and Tibetan human rights groups are responsible for the monks’ self-immolations. Their drawing attention to the ongoing suicides, Beijing claims, has “incited more people to follow suit.” In reality, it is Beijing’s failed and despair-creating policies regarding Tibet that are behind the tragedy.

Self-immolation is not a new concept for Buddhist monks; they have been practising it as a form of religious expression for centuries. It is also not a new tactic of protest in China. A monk burned himself in Harbin in Manchuria in 1949 to protest the religious repression of China’s new communist government.

The spectacle of burning Buddhist monks, who had doused themselves with gasoline and set themselves alight, was a horrifying image of protest for those old enough to remember the Vietnam War. The photo that went around the world in 1963 of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, sitting motionless and praying in a public place while the flames consumed his body, is regarded as the beginning of the end of South Vietnam’s President Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime. Duc was protesting the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic Diem and not the war.

But that didn’t stop the anti-Vietnam War protest movement in the United States from adopting Duc’s tactic. At least five protesters burned themselves to death at different demonstrations in imitation of Duc. The last self-immolation reportedly was a University of California student, who set himself on fire at the San Diego campus in 1970.

But the greatest number of self-immolations of South Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns were to occur after the communist victory in 1975. These keepers of their nation’s two thousand-year-old spiritual heritage would self-immolate en masse to protest the closure of their religious institutions by their country’s new, brutal and atheistic rulers. Twelve Buddhist monks and nuns, for example, self-immolated together in Can Tho province in November, 1975, to protest the closing of a monastery and the murderous violence the communists were inflicting on Buddhist believers.

But the American anti-war demonstrators, who only a few short years earlier exhibited so loudly and vociferously such great concern about Vietnamese lives to the point they were calling their own soldiers baby-killers and setting themselves on fire, no longer paid attention to this once admired Vietnamese Buddhist protest and to the greater killing now underway in Southeast Asia. This proves they were always more concerned about being anti-American and pro-socialist than saving Vietnamese lives. The fact they looked the other way during the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and for 20 years during the tragedy of the Boat People demonstrates clearly many of the anti-war protesters most likely never cared about the South Vietnamese people at all.

Like in Tibet, self-immolations by Buddhists still continue in Vietnam. But the spiritual heirs of the anti-Vietnam War protesters, the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement, will, like their predecessors, heartlessly ignore these human tragedies in both countries unless they can somehow serve their anti-capitalist or anti-American purposes. The last thing they would want to point out is that greater evil and worse conditions exist in a socialist state than in the United States.

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  • ten20

    This author's article is an unfortunate contribution to the political importance of the immolations, as well as their ethical implications. There is no need to paint the immolations in Tibet as an exclusive, morally superior example to other protests such as the current Occupy movement. There is no singular, exceptional oppression, it exists in many forms.

    A particularly significant fact the writer leaves out is that the Vietnamese monks who self-immolated in the 60s, in protesting against South Vietnam's Diem regime, were protesting against a severely anti-Communist regime that was put in place by the United States — it was not simply a matter of Buddhist vs Catholic.

    Oppression may come in the guise of communism or capitalism, theocracy or democracy. While its form may at first be determined by the system it is born out of, eventually it looks like all other oppression — to quote a letter written by Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.-

    I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama… is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself. In our unfortunate father land we are trying to yield desperately: do not kill man, even in man's name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.

    (The entire letter is available here: http://www.aavw.org/special_features/letters_thic

  • PatriotX

    I know little about Tibet or it’s issues with China but burning yourself to death is not the answer. It doesn’t earn you respect it earns you an excruciatingly painful death.

    • james

      Tibetans burning themself, not to earn you respect. They are in a situation where they have nothing more to lose. They're fighting for unjustice, inhuman, and atrocity by the CCP.

    • mcd

      They're burning themselves to turn the attention of the world towards their issue: Tibetan oppression by the Chinese.

  • Wong

    Tibetan will die of hunger if not for china's support.

    • BS77

      Tibet was doing fine before China invaded it, destroyed their farms, fields, towns, monasteries; sent millions fleeing across the Himalayas to escape Chinese prisons and slave work …..Tibet was poor but not starving…China has attempted to destroy the Tibetan BUddhist culture. China has ruined Lhasa and turned TIbet into a Chinese Communist slave zone.

    • james

      Millions of Chinese people will starve to death without Tibet. China did nothing to Tibet and Tibetans except, rape, murder, and torture…..

  • Debanjan Banerjee

    I can say that the Tibetans have generally done well because of Chinese supervision. Let us not forget that during the Dalai Lama times , Tibettan children's body parts were offered during the inaugural ceremony of the Dalai Lamas'.

    The economic inequality was the main thing that needed Chinese supervision of Tibbetan affairs. I can say that in many ways Chinese supervision of Tibbet can be compared with the benevolent aspects of British rule in India.

    Before the Chinese there were no direct railway network in Tibbet now Tibbet boasts a modern railway system from Beijing to Lhasa. There are signs of affluence in Tibbet which any outsider can observe.

    The distrubances that you see in Tibbet are all caused by anti-modernization religious zealots who hate any form of progress or induistry. These people deserve to be treated in the same way that the American founders dealt with the native American tribes.

    I hope all the people will agree with me in the forum.

    • tanstaafl

      "live free or die"

    • tendol

      firstly its TIBET! and if china really had done good by invading tibet, bringing the modernization in tibet then why are tibetans burning themselves? we live in present, our present is devastating enough to even think about the future of this cruel world. monks self-immolate themselves because their reason for living is taken away from them. talk abt modernization in a country where there is no freedom, no justice, no humanity! 1000s of tibetans detained, noone knows abt their whereabouts. in a country where they are deprived of these human rights, id rather have my freedom to LIVE then railroads.

    • Kristen

      Debanjan Banerjee,
      Excuse me?!? You’re for genocide of other human beings simply because they’re different?? Your statement about the Native-American tribes is offensive and ignorant beyond words. Millions of them were slaughtered because of greed.

      The Chinese were wrong to invade Tibet, a land where people lived in peace and bothered no one. Such arrogance is astonishing!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mozan.rock Wajid Ahmed

    I Don,t think this man is Tibetan.

  • Guido

    Devastatingly uninformed essay.

  • naerulinnud

    That sounds just like my high school. Years later, after zero soul searching or self reflection, teachers still marvel how it was possible for me to get D's and F's while learning about how evil America is (history) and how much fun they had in India (sociology/geography) yett score over 95 percent on all the standardized tests. (Guest lectures included a known drug addict explaining how to absorb information through osmosis while staring at a page). There is nothing I can do about being an airhead, even by California standards, but thanks to this permanent vaccination, at least I can never be a leftist one. http://www.koduleheoptimeerimine.ee/

  • Chris

    The attempts to discredit "leftists" and Occupy Wall Street protesters in an article about self-immolation of Tibetan monks are as unnecessary as they are uninformed.

  • Pax

    It is sick that people are using oppression and death to make a point about the hypocrisy of American protestors. If you are upset about the "greater evil and worse conditions" of the Tibetan people, then do something about it instead of trying to use it to attack the actions of your political opponents.

  • http://frontpagemag.com/2011/stephenbrown/tibetan-buddhist-monks-set-themselves-on-fire-to-protest-chinese-oppression/ Cyndi Nusbaum

    Tibetans feel forgotten. They have been denied their culture, their spiritual practice, their land, their dignity & this has all been by the hands & minds, of the Chinese dictators & their goon squads, of the Chinese Army oppressors. If you don’t understand Buddhism or cultural oppression for decades, you should still understand human rights . Dictators & Oppressors do not honor human rights. Occupy is not leftists, it is pro-humanity and anti-oppression. It’s life & death when the homeless are starving, veterans are committing suicide & those in need, in the wake of a Superstorm. OWS is a candle in the dark, for the voices of that are marginalized or have fell silent. If folks don’t catch themselves on fire, it’s because they must have hope, because someone cares. In Tibet drastic measures are a call for help, they have lost hope. Feel Forgotten. This has gone on far too long. Only exposure of the darkness, can bring the truth to light.