Are We Ignoring the Self-Immolation’s?

(Guest Post by Ngawang Choephel. Originally written on 1/2/2012)

Now that 2012 has arrived, and reflecting upon the last year, I don’t personally think that 2011 was a good year for Tibet and its situation. For the few monks and political prisoners who have committed to our cause, it is painful to see them take such drastic measures, and to receive little or no result.

In 1998, when I was in prison, I heard news of Thupten Ngodup’s self immolation in India. I may be wrong, but I believe he was the first Tibetan to burn himself to death. I was encouraged and energized, like all other political prisoners in Tibet because we felt that something would happen for Tibet. His act even though it was obviously sad that he had to sacrifice his life, it made us feel proud, and that our time in prison was worthwhile because we were unified in our cause and we thought that something would happen. When I had the chance to talk about it with other political prisoners, at that time in the late 1990s, they all felt that Tibetans in exile were doing more than Tibetans in Tibet, because since the late 1980’s there had not been any major protests in Tibet. I am sure that most of the Tibetans in Tibet who heard about Thupten Ngodup’s historic sacrifice must have been inspired and moved. I personally felt a sort of physical link to what had happened, and thought there might be a breakthrough in the Tibetan movement from India.

Despite already knowing since birth about the endless suffering and genocide of Tibetan people, and the occupation of our land by the Chinese, I was actually personally experiencing this suffering in prison at that time. Hearing the news of Thupten Ngodup while in prison was a very unique time in my life and turning point. I felt like I was part of everything in real time. Throughout my prison term, I wished that my mother could understand the broader issue of Tibet, and that she could look past my individual suffering and our separation and understand that my time in prison was useful and meaningful.

After I was released, I was shocked to watch the 2008 protests in many different parts of Tibet which broke the silence we’d had since the late 1980’s. Tibetans in Tibet answered the Chinese leaders in a brave way and diverted the attention of all Tibetans from Chinese Communist propaganda and demonstrated their strong self awareness of who they really are despite the propaganda. It showed the failure of Chinese policy for the last 50 years and that Tibetan people still remain without freedom. It was brutally honest and current.

I was in LA when I heard that news, and was compelled to express my feelings by writing a few lines of a song which I then included in my film along with a segment of the 2008 protests in Tibet.  I was editing my film at the time.  While editing we had to look at the images over and over again. It would have been natural to get tired of looking at them. But while I was there in LA editing, and especially with the news of the 2008 protests, I never got tired of looking at the images of Tibetans. The more I watched, the more I felt part of them and inspired.  I called a friend of mine in India to talk about the 2008 protest. I told her that I was not able to do anything, but that I had written a letter to the Senator. She said, “ Its very good that you are able to write such a letter, but we can only cry. We can’t do anything.” I remember I told her we also need people to cry.

A few months later, I was in Dharamsala, where I was reunited with two friends with whom I’d spent almost two years in prison in Tibet. They had served 10 and 11 years respectively as political prisoners. After their release, they both managed to escape from Tibet to India. The three of us were in a Tibetan restaurant, and their eyes filled with tears as we talked about 2008. It was surreal to see them in India, after our experience together in prison, but you never know what will happen, especially in the life of Tibetan people today.

Chairman Mao said to His Holiness Dalai Lama, that he would develop Tibet and then give it back after 20 something years, and likewise all Chinese soldiers have said the same thing to ordinary Tibetans – that they have just come to help temporarily and would return to China afterward. One of my former fellow prisoners told me that there must be an end one day to the Tibetan people’s fate to stay under Chinese rule. He was only a little boy when China entered Tibet, and can only vaguely remember, but he remembered what his parents told him of their experiences, like all Tibetans. He really believed that China would go back one day, and he had hoped very strongly that this would have happened back in 2000. But have the Chinese forces gone back, or will they ever? They turned Tibet inside out, and now Tibetan people will no longer be able to recognize their own land and culture as Tibet or themselves as Tibetans.

Today, the identity of Tibetan people is at the threat of extinction, and Tibetan monks and nuns live in a nightmare world every day. As Abraham Lincoln said “It is true that you may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”

Finally, Tibetan monks answered the Chinese lies and inhumane treatment of Tibetan people by their courageous act of burning themselves to death with the thought that we support them. This made the most clear distinction between Tibetan determination and Chinese power and lies. Not just one or two or a few, but a total of 13 Tibetans have self-immolated in the past year. They have shown the real face of the Tibetan people and challenged the Chinese that only the truth and nothing else matters. Every time I hear the news of another Tibetan self-immolation, I go into deep thought with solitary tears.

With such historic events as 2008, and now such a huge scale of sacrifice of our brothers and sisters through self immolation, we were called upon, we who are left behind after their deaths. Those who sacrificed themselves believed that it would have some effect, but here we are left behind and still nothing has happened. I was expecting the current Tibetan leaders in exile to speak from their hearts and create a fire in every Tibetan in exile to join our brothers’ and sisters’ sacrifice to keep our spirit alive. I thought that the time had come for all Tibetans in exile to alter the focus of their lives and truly engage in our cause.  Sadly, the response from our leaders has been the same oblivious answer and rhetoric; that Tibetans have self-immolated in order to seek international help. We may have done our part as messengers by reporting the news of their deaths, but we have not stood behind them with any personal sense of responsibility. If we had, then we would be protesting on a daily basis.

I may be wrong to ask, but what international help exactly are we asking for or hoping to get? How long can we live in expectation of someone else to help us? No government has executed their power to solve the Tibet issue the way they have done for Israel and Palestine. Instead, they have used Tibet as a pawn to benefit their relationship with China. Whenever they want to please China, they say Tibet is part of China. Whenever they want to displease China, they say there is a human rights issue in Tibet. No more, no less. Do we still expect to have international help and continue in our oblivious world creating awareness of Tibet for the last 50 years instead of doing something ourselves that is more meaningful and responsible?

My mom told me that when I was a political prisoner, it didn’t make sense for her to stay at home, that she wanted to do something that made her feel that she was taking action regardless of whether or not it would get me out of prison sooner. So she camped by herself at Jantar Mantar in Delhi for days every year.

We all know that Tibet is illegally occupied by China and that there is no freedom in Tibet. My mother knew that I was innocent. I am not trying to say that all Tibetans in exile have to camp on the street, but the situation is similar in that, regardless of whether it will have the effect we want or not, we should take some action.

We are now having the auspicious event of Kalachakra Initiation in Bodhgaya by His Holiness Dalai Lama. But do we ever stop to think, the only reason we can receive such blessing is because of freedom? If His Holiness Dalai Lama was in Tibet today, he would not be able to give a Kalachakra initiation. Without a free Tibet, we have no true religious freedom.

Our brothers and sisters who have self immolated have realized this scope of how important freedom is. Without it we are constantly in a shadow on this earth. Does it make sense for us to stay home and protest in a convenient style while our brothers and sisters have seen the truth so painfully that they have no choice but to burning their own life? I am currently in Bodhgaya for the Kalachakra Initiation. I see the thousands of people gathered for Kalachakra and it is inspiring but at the same time saddening because I wonder why we can’t gather like this for our Tibetan cause, especially in appreciation for those who gave their lives thinking that we who are left behind will see the depth of their sacrifice and take action?

Its time for every single Tibetan in exile to justify their stand for Tibet. If not then we are betraying and separating ourselves from Tibetans in Tibet. It took just one self-immolation to change most of the Middle Eastern countries’ protests. But after 13 self immolations in Tibet, the affect is slipping away, and it appears we will just forget about working to change the situation. No matter how different Arab countries and Tibet’s situation might be, there is something majorly wrong with the Tibetan freedom movement if Tibetans continue to self immolate and are for the most part ignored.

We may never get true international help, or China may never solve the issue of Tibet. But what matters now is that we realize that we need to give our best. If we do not, if we continue to come out to demonstrate a few times a year, or remember the importance of freedom only a few times in our lifetime, then we cannot call ourselves freedom fighters. To be a real freedom fighter once we commit to freedom, it must be part of us, every day.  It must be the fire in our body just as the sun is to the Earth. With this new year in 2012, we must think at how much each life counts. That is why, even if one more person joins in action and commitment after reading this it will be worthwhile.