Skip to main content

The politics of Tibetan self-immolations

By Costica Bradatan, Special to CNN
August 16, 2012 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
The sign held by a demonstrator who is protesting Chinese occupation and policies in Tibet refers to self-immolations in Tibet.
The sign held by a demonstrator who is protesting Chinese occupation and policies in Tibet refers to self-immolations in Tibet.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Groups: 48 Tibetans self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China without political change
  • Yet a Tunisian's setting himself afire set off Arab spring, he says. Why was that different?
  • He writes: The Tunisian spoke to everyone's despair; Tibetan protesters have varying goals
  • Bradatan: Tibetans are nonviolent, but some may be tired of Dalai Lama's pacifism

Editor's note: Costica Bradatan is Fellow at Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies and Associate Professor in the Honors College at Texas Tech University. He has also taught at Cornell University, Miami University, as well as other universities in Europe and Asia. Bradatan is the author or editor or several books, most recently "Philosophy, Society and the Cunning of History in Eastern Europe" (Routledge, 2012).

(CNN) -- Consider this. On December 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire and started a dramatic remaking of the political landscape. The striking of a match brought change not only in Tunisia, but also in Egypt and Libya, and even what is happening in Syria.

On the other hand, as of August this year, about 48 Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have self-immolated in Tibetan parts of China. In March 2012 alone, seven people self-immolated, and Tibetan exiles in India have been setting themselves on fire. The political result? Nothing.

So why does the self-immolation of one man accomplish so much, but the same gesture performed by so many others accomplishes nothing? Perhaps the question should be phrased differently, because a closer look at Bouazizi's deed and the Tibetan cases reveals that it is something other than the sheer number of self-immolations that makes them a catalyst for change.

Two more Tibetans self-immolate in China protest

Tunisians could easily identify with Bouazizi's extreme predicament. His actions spoke to the community's shared frustration and despair. But the demands of Tibetan self-immolators are varied. Some want a "free Tibet," as do all Tibetan exiles, but others only want freedom of religion, or political autonomy, or the opportunity to study in Tibetan as opposed to Chinese, or the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

Costica Bradatan
Costica Bradatan

When a self-immolator like Bouazizi is perceived as taking upon himself the humiliations and shameful submissions, the collective cowardice and voluntary servitude of his people, he burns off, along with his body, the diffuse sense of shame and guilt that has been paralyzing his community.

The burning body thus becomes a site of cleansing, catharsis and regeneration. The community is going -- vicariously, but no less effectively -- through a "purification by fire." And in the process an important thing takes place: That society reinvents itself, it is transformed from a shattered community into a political community.

As the body is being devoured by flames, the promise (if only the promise) of a new beginning takes shape. The self-immolations of Thích Quàng Đúc in Saigon in 1963 and Jan Palach in Prague in 1969 were not very different from that of Bouazizi. The former was a Buddhist monk who self-immolated to draw attention to the persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam under the Ngô Đình Diem's regime; the latter was a philosophy student who did the same thing in Prague as a response to the Soviet Union's crush of the Prague Spring.

Self-immolations that prompt political change are extraordinary and rare events. The ancient Greeks had two different words for time: chronos for ordinary time and kairos for time of special quality -- a particularly propitious time for which our "right time" is a rather weak translation. For self-immolations to be politically successful, they have to happen in kairos. Bouazizi, Đúc and Palach had many imitators, but none since have achieved so much.

Dalai Lama silent on self-immolations
New realities for Tibetans in China
Should Dalai Lama condemn immolations?

That's why the high number of self-immolations among Tibetans lately could be read as an implicit admission of failure. Even though the first self-immolation by a former Tibetan monk, Thupten Ngodup, on April 27, 1998, in New Delhi, had some public impact, it failed to cause the political commotion that Bouazizi triggered in the Arab world. Nor have any of the other Tibetan self-immolators since.

Yet, this should not surprise us. There is a strong rejection of violence in Buddhism. Even through self-immolations took place in medieval China and 20th-century Vietnam, even though the Lotus Sutra praises "burning for Buddha" as the supreme self-sacrifice, Buddhists are very reluctant to condone violence. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, is centered on compassion toward all sentient beings and prohibition of murder, suicide included.

Such a religious and cultural viewpoint must prevent ordinary Tibetans from identifying with the self-immolators. Accommodating this radical form of violence within a culture that has for centuries fed on cosmic compassion and political non-violence is not an easy process.

That is why the recent string of self-immolations in Tibetan parts of China is a sign that this could be changing. Most self-immolators are young -- some are teens -- which indicates that the new generation of politically aware Tibetans might have lost patience with the Dalai Lama's nonviolent political philosophy and want to respond differently to the Chinese's aggressive methods.

What we see now is possibly the beginning of a new type of political engagement in Tibet, a new pattern very different from Bouazizi's and Palach's, who emerged from communities that had been brought to their knees. Tibetans, instead, over the last 60 years have considered their nation as occupied, but not defeated. Since 1959 they have with some regularity risen against the Chinese authorities.

It's very disturbing to watch these self-immolations, but that is part of the intent. The Tibetans want the Chinese and the world to look. The meaning of their gesture lies in its total passivity. It is no accident that after every self-immolation the Chinese authorities scramble to confiscate and destroy any pictures taken; they are only too aware of the iconic status such images can acquire.

In essence, these self-immolations are an extreme form of political self-expression. They are performed as part of a struggle for recognition, as an autonomous political community. It confirms what Thích Nhất Hạnh was saying in 1967: "To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination and sincerity."

For many Tibetan monks and nuns of today the burning body has become a tool for the most resounding of self-assertions; when you are in flames your presence cannot be ignored anymore.

It is a shouting game of sorts, except that no party shouts. The Tibetans express themselves by burning; the Chinese authorities do the same by shooting Tibetans. Then, another monk or nun engages in self-expression and everything starts anew.

Palden Gyatso, a Tibetan monk who spent more than 30 years in Chinese prisons and labor camps, once said: "For those who use brute force, there is nothing more insulting than a victim's refusal to acknowledge their power."

Rarely has the desire for recognition been so desperate and moving.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Costica Bradatan.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1947 GMT (0347 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Jimmy Carter's message about the need to restore trust in public officials is a vital one, decades after the now 90-year-old he first voiced it
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2156 GMT (0556 HKT)
Ford Vox says mistakes and missed opportunities along the line to a diagnosis of Ebola in a Liberian man have put Dallas residents at risk of fatal infection
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2221 GMT (0621 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz says California is trying, but its law requiring step-by-step consent is just not the way hot and heavy sex proceeds on college campuses
October 2, 2014 -- Updated 0217 GMT (1017 HKT)
Mike Downey says long-suffering fans, waiting for good playoff news since 1985, finally get something to cheer about
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2139 GMT (0539 HKT)
Steve Israel saysJohn Boehner's Congress and the tea party will be remembered for shutting down government one year ago
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1856 GMT (0256 HKT)
Yep. You read the headline right, says Peter Bergen, writing on the new government that stresses national unity
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Hong Kong's pro-democracy demonstrators are but the latest freedom group to be abandoned by the Obama administration, says Mike Gonzalez
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1653 GMT (0053 HKT)
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1423 GMT (2223 HKT)
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
October 1, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 2303 GMT (0703 HKT)
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1419 GMT (2219 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1329 GMT (2129 HKT)
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1859 GMT (0259 HKT)
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
September 27, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
September 30, 2014 -- Updated 1332 GMT (2132 HKT)
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1233 GMT (2033 HKT)
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
September 23, 2014 -- Updated 2137 GMT (0537 HKT)
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
September 26, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
September 24, 2014 -- Updated 0910 GMT (1710 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT