Tsering Woeser argues that self-immolation is not an act of despair.
Since the Tibetan uprising of 2008, nearly 150 monks, nuns and laypeople have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese domination. Poet-activist Tsering Woeser argues that this defiant act of self-immolation is not an act of despair but “a positive symbol of action, national identity, and spiritual strength.” Woeser’s short book explores the context and the fate of these bold dissidents.
The author is a dissident “under close surveillance” in the Chinese capital, and speaks out for those silenced in their decimated and deracinated homeland. Woeser explains that there is no tradition of this fiery act in her native Tibet. She tracks its sudden and recent escalation to the month of March, a period full of holidays celebrating the Himalayan realm that has become a time for national and cultural pride and resistance to Communist suppression. Rather than judge self-immolation by Buddhist principles, Woeser regards this act as “ignited by ethnic oppression.”
Woeser lists five reasons for Tibet’s fierce opposition to Chinese domination. First, the forced “patriotic education” given monastics. Next, the damage done to the Tibetan plateau, destroyed by exploitation and global warming hastened by Chinese capitalism. Third, the discouragement of the Tibetan language. Fourth, the massive immigration of lowland Han into the region. Finally, top-down control of the region by “nets in the sky and traps on the ground.” Data secured by aerial footage and on land by cameras or spies capture many who are fighting for Tibet’s survival. Postcard scenes of Lhasa romantics admire disguise a venal economy and a police state.
Analyzing nearly 50 statements left behind by those who have set themselves on fire, Woeser and her husband Wang Lixiong determine two central concerns. The protesters emphasize the restoration of the Tibetan language, proscribed and disdained by the Party and its native collaborators. The Tibetans also promote the independence of the Land of Snows. This tactic separates these restive rebels from those such as the present Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile, which has adopted a less confrontational and more diplomatic set of negotiations presented to the People’s Republic of China.
As only Chinese-approved journalists can operate openly in Tibet, videos and testimonies by native sympathizers are difficult to obtain and dangerous to transmit. Woeser changes identifying names and places, and narrates the stories of those who have set themselves on fire, including the disturbing cases of those who survived and were spirited away by Chinese authorities, never to resurface.
These acts are considered not only religious protest but political protest. With the completion of the first rail line to Lhasa in 2012, the Chinese Han majority enter the former Tibetan capital with greater ease, while Woeser and Lhasa natives are corralled and interrogated by Chinese police before they can enter. Limits to Tibetan freedom are only increasing, not only by bureaucratic obstacles but by closed circuit television monitoring, collective punishments for families of protesters and rewards for informants. Due to restrictions and caution, Woeser can only report limited evidence. Journalists who are not in favor with the PRC occupation are forced to smuggle out firsthand reports from those trapped inside a militarized crackdown. Yet this book is as thoroughly documented as possible, with current websites and interviews appended or elaborated in end-notes. Tibet on Fire may be a concise volume, but it conveys rare voices that would otherwise be hushed.
After the failed rebellion in 2008, Woeser regards non-violence as the only solution. Recalling Thích Quảng Đức’s iconic self-immolation in Saigon in 1963, Woeser points to the Buddhist presence of a “lamp offering” as a congenial image. Using their bodies as candles, Tibetan protesters radicalize their uprising. They turn themselves into light. This harms no others, Woeser concludes, and by this horror, the attention of the world may be held.
Another dissident, the artist Ai Weiwei, memorably portrays this struggle. His cover design for Tibet on Fire, reveals a hidden message under a logo of swirling flames: the names of these human “lamp offerings” are embossed into the background. May their impact widen among those who fight for freedom against an empire.