Tibetan Buddhist Monks Set Themselves on Fire to Protest Chinese Oppression

Left ignores attempted suicides of Vietnam War-era tactic they once admired.

It is not a cause the leftist ‘Occupy Wall Street’ crowd would ever espouse, since its life-or-death issues would shame theirs and show where true evil and oppression resides.

Largely ignored by the Western media, nine Tibetan Buddhist monks and one nun have attempted suicide by self-immolation since last March in China’s eastern Sichuan province, a hotbed of unrest against perceived Chinese government oppression. Eastern Sichuan is largely inhabited by ethnic Tibetans and was once historically part of Tibet.

It is unknown how many of the ten perished in their suicide attempts, since Chinese authorities never say whether a monk survived. But it is believed five have died from their injuries, the nun, Tengzin Wangmo, 20, being one of them. The latest attempted self-immolation, reported by the Free Tibet group, occurred only last week outside a monastery in Ganzi in Sichuan, when a monk set himself alight after dousing himself with an accelerant. It is also not known whether he survived.

“The unrest in Tibet is escalating and widening,” said Stephanie Brigden of Free Tibet. “The number and frequency of self-immolations is unprecedented.”

The latest fatality, whose name is unknown, is the eighth Buddhist monk to attempt suicide by fire in the past two months. This increase in self-immolation numbers indicates the Tibetans’ level of desperation and despair concerning the survival of their people, culture and religion, which they see threatened by Han Chinese immigration and repressive government measures. Beijing gained control of Tibet, which is now labelled an autonomous region, after it successfully invaded its neighbour in 1950.

Self-immolations, like those occurring in Tibet, are a sign of a people reaching the end of its tether. It is the only weapon the powerless and brutalised Tibetans feel they have left that could make a difference against a monstrous dictatorship that has already murdered 70 million people. The employment of this ultimate measure is also an indication that Tibetans believe their situation and conditions are becoming so hopeless, they would rather perish than continue living in their present state.

Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, self-immolations also occurred in European communist countries to protest the unbearable and horrific results of decades of socialism. A self-immolation also triggered the ‘Arab Spring’ when a man set himself alight in Tunisia to protest bureaucratic corruption. While it is doubtful whether the recent self-immolations of Buddhist spirituals will lead to such regime-changing events, especially in the face of continued, massive Chinese police oppression, Brigden believes they are sparking discontent.

“The acts of self-immolation are not taking place in isolation, protests have been reported in the surrounding region and calls for wider protests are growing,” she said.

The center of the recent Tibetan suicide protests, and of anti-Beijing sentiment in general, is the Kirti monastery in eastern Sichuan. The majority of monks involved in the fiery suicide attempts this year were from Kirti, the first one taking place last March. The monk was 16-years-old. Two other Kirti monks, accused of assisting with the March attempt, were both given long jail terms.

Before the self-immolations, the Kirti monastery had a population of 2,500 monks; that has now dwindled to 600 due to arrests, police persecution and “brutal” security raids.” With police now stationed inside the monastery itself, the religious institution is reported to have been turned into “a virtual prison.” Several hundred monks may also have been sent away for “patriotic re-education.”

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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