Heroes, Martyrs and Mountain Phoenix: Thoughts on Self-Immolation and Suicide

“Distancing ourselves clearly from self-immolation as a political method is not a betrayal of our sacrificing Tibetan brothers and sisters. Not distancing ourselves means approval and indirect encouragement of a method that is neither humanly sustainable nor politically effective.

Self-immolation is not okay even as the ultimate resort”.

Now I don’t know who Mountain Phoenix is. I’ve only just begun reading her blog this past year, and this week there was a new post published that was unlike anything I’ve read this year regarding the self-immolations in Tibet. The more I read, the more I thought man, this Phoenix is ON POINT. It’s a piece many may disagree with, and I myself am not 100% down with every part of  this post, but she does put into words what I had hoped someone would do for months. Phoenix explains straight up why she believes self-immolations are not a sustainable or politically effective form of protest. Instead she calls for a movement similar to Lhakar that is more about living and planning strategically for the future rather than memorializing the growing number of  martyrs each month.

We begin with ourselves, extend it to our families, which then flows into our communities. It’s “Lhakar” bottom up, magnified by seven days a week, extrapolated to 365 days of the year, for the rest of our lives. And while each of us individually goes about accomplishing these tasks, we draw on our inner strength and confidence sharing that with our family and our community.

I don’t think that there is any way to somehow measure the conduct, character and motivations of all 36 Tibetans who have self-immolated in Tibet and in exile and be able to judge whether or not they were indeed “heroic”. According to Mountain Phoenix,

With all my prayers for the deceased and those left wounded, I fail to see them as heroes. I can follow they believed if only something dramatic would be done it could improve the situation. But a hero personifies an ideal and works to fulfill that in the real world, someone who leads by example and whose actions bring change, a person we can strive to emulate. Politically motivated suicide victims cannot be role models for our society no matter how noble and selfless the goal. These deaths are tragic and the victims’ families deserve all our sympathies, but begging your pardon, they are not “heroes”.

How do you figure someone a hero? A martyr? What are the qualifying factors? In the “Self Immolation Fact Sheet” published by the International Campaign for Tibet, it only lists 35 Tibetans, all from Tibet except the sheet’s title implies this is a complete list. I guess they don’t count the self-immolation in Delhi by 27 year old Jamphel Yeshi during the visit of Chinese Premier Hu Jintao last month, a boy with burns over 90% of his body who later died and whose body was brought back to Dharamsala for a funeral that was attended by thousands. Or 26 year old, Dhondup Puntsok, who decided to confirm his own dedication to Tibetan Freedom by taking his life and jumping off Horwah Bridge in Kolkata, only to have this body fished out of the Ganges the next morning and identified by his mother. He was wearing a “Free Tibet” T-shirt. He said he was inspired by Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation in Delhi.

Death has so many variables. So many ways to die, and when I think about people who commit suicide or take part in actions that have a great likelihood of resulting in their own deaths, I wonder why and how some people choose to do it. What was the reason, and what did they want us to know.

How can we make an absolute decision that any of these Tibetans’ actions were not of a heroic nature?

When I think about the use of self-immolation as a strategic form of protest, I ask myself, what were the goals of the people who have self-immolated? The ones that we do know about, the ones that we have actual statements, messages or audio recording from are strategically planned with the goal to immolate and have their statements heard. Even though they may lose their lives, their goal was not to die. Rather, their goal was to make a political statement through their testimony but overwhelmingly through the very act of self-immolation and were willing to give up their lives as a result.

After Puntsok’s death there were two main articles I saw that were being circulated online. In both, Puntsok was referred to as a martyr several times. I wonder why Tibetans never grow tired of this word. Every time I see it there is this deeply unsettling feeling that rises within me. It makes me think we are using the wrong word.

I think that Phoenix has a point in saying that we are too quick to call everyone who self-immolates a “hero”. For a while I had been wondering if there was even a difference in the Tibetan words for “hero” and “martyr” because as of late people have been using them interchangeably. And if there is a difference, do we distinguish between the two enough?? It seems like in the past two years alone, the way we use those words all carry along with the same connotation, especially between Tibetans who self-immolate and Tibetans who resist in a heroic way.  I do think there is a difference between a martyr and a hero, and personally, I think we need more heroes.

Here is a link to the full post, Rising From the Ashes, by Mountain Phoenix Over Tibet.