How About Some R-e-s-p-e-c-t?

A video has just emerged of the Chinese military lockdown in Ngaba. It was shot clandestinely by Agence France-Presse and shows the tense faces of Tibetans living with an overwhelming number of military personnel, trucks and road blocks.

Can you imagine living in such a place? I can’t. But we all try to empathize, we try to enhabit that world on some level so we can understand. That’s why none of us would dare order Tibetans living in Ngaba or anywhere else in Tibet to stop burning themselves, or to stop protesting, or to stop fighting for what they want.

So where does Dibyesh Anand, a China-India scholar in London, get off advising the Dalai Lama to send such orders?  In his Guardian: Comment is free piece, “China fears the living Tibetans — not those who set fire to themselves,” Anand gives the following reasons for his advice:

1) Self-immolation is violent and this action goes against Buddhist principles. “Won’t [the Dalai Lama’s] lifetime’s work go to waste if this novel form of political protest spreads like a wildfire?” he asks. 

Firstly, he is somewhat disproportionately concerned about the fate of Buddhist principles (FYI, principles don’t bleed, people do). But believe me Anand, these monks and nun were acting because of the same concern. Time after time, they called out for “religious freedom” before setting themselves on fire. Their belief in the importance of Buddhism goes back to the fundamental element of Tibetan thinking that a monk or nun does religious practice for the benefit of all sentient beings. And while Anand might have some appreciation for Buddhism, for these monks and nuns, this is their life’s meaning.  

Self-immolation isn’t necessarily violent either. By his definition of ‘violence,’ fasting is violent, as is wearing a girdle – well, they do hurt. But he’s really confusing the fiery nature of the act with its intention. Anyone who knows Tibetans know how much import we place on intention, and the intention of the actions was not to inflict violence but to express oneself, to release a call of protest and to generate power for Tibetans.

What’s more, self-immolation (though very rare in the Tibetan movement) has precedence in Buddhist texts, and was in fact enacted by the Bodhisattva All Beings Delight In Seeing. As written in chapter 23 of Lotus Sutra, the Bodhisattva decides to sacrifice his life as an offering to the Buddha by self-immolating for twelve hundred years.

The sentiments expressed are beautiful, and even gave me some comfort because it made me realize that there is a spiritual component to these young monks’ and nun’s actions that I never considered:

“By means of spiritual penetration power and vows, he burned his own body. The light shone everywhere throughout worlds in number to the grains of sand in eighty kotis of Ganges Rivers.

[The Buddhas responded] ‘Good man, this is called foremost giving. Among all gifts, it is the most honored and most supreme, because it is an offering of Dharma to the Thus Come Ones.'”

2) More and more Tibetans will feel a form of peer-pressure to show loyalty to the Dalai Lama, and thus they will burn themselves.

This is frankly insulting to Tibetans inside Tibet. They don’t act to show loyalty. They don’t burn themselves because their neighbors did it. This isn’t Saved by the Bell and they don’t make their decisions the way we decided to take a puff of our friend’s cigarette in the back of our high schools. Anand is trivializing the Tibetan crisis here and actually giving Tibetans the intelligence of infants.

3) Nobody cares about Tibet. The international media will get bored of the repetition of self-immolations, and Chinese people will think we are just as savage as they’ve always thought we are. 

There’s a basic egocentrism here that presupposes that Tibetans inside Tibet are acting to send a message to Westerners, or Han Chinese. I don’t know. Maybe they are thinking about those audience demographics when they are getting ready to act, maybe not. But I’m going to suggest that these actions are probably also meant for the Tibetans in Tibet and in exile, and also for the Chinese government and military personnel actually living in Ngaba.

Ananda’s presumption is based on another presumption. That the Western world and Han Chinese are the power-holders in this situation and so they are the targets Tibetans would want to get on our side. I would venture to think that Tibetans inside Tibet see things closer to the ground, see the power passing hands from them to the Chinese authorities, and back and forth. I won’t get into theories of power, but power exists as a moving thing within groups, not inherently in any entity. It is a constant negotiation where members of the group must give power to someone within that group, or (in this case) try to take it away.

I believe that Tibetans inside Tibet (across the plateau, not just in Ngaba), as evidenced by the Lhakar movement, are seeing that the power is truly within their grasp. They are working strategically to take that power back from the Chinese authorities through economic, social and political non-cooperation.

So…this all gets me to the main reason why this article irked me to the core. It is condescending towards not only the 9 brave young Tibetan monks and nun who chose to do something for their people and nation, but towards all Tibetans, including His Holiness.

But to be fair, this isn’t something that Anand does alone. It’s symptomatic of a long-standing attitude from some Western scholars, politicians, corporations, and our Chinese oppressors alike: that they know what’s best for Tibetans. In all of this, it feels that no one really wants to listen to the Tibetans inside Tibet. Anand is essentially sympathetic to Tibetans, and probably sees himself as an ally of sorts. But Tibetans have taken much patronizing from our ‘patrons’ in the past.

Now it’s time to listen to Tibetans inside Tibet. And it’s time for us to answer their call.


The Editorial Board of the Tibetan Political Review just came out with “Tibetan Freedom and the Day After” – a paper doing something that we as a community don’t do enough of: plan concretely and boldly for the future of our country and movement. I hope that this is just the start. We need as many people as possible working for the Tibetan cause (as thinkers, educators, activists, artists, writers, donors etc.) now.

That’s all for now. This is NYCYak, signing off. Ghale peh!