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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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