Understanding Self-Immolation in Tibet

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On May 19, Jamyang Losal, a 22 years old Tibetan monk, set himself on fire in the Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Tsojang. Losal was the 150th Tibetan to immolate himself to protest against China ‘s policy on the Tibetan plateau since 2009 (1). In the last years the brutal cycle of violence has been increasing, despite (and indeed because of) strong police controls.

Against this, the aim of this paper is to explore the phenomenon of self immolation of Tibetans, a practice which, although it extends almost to the entire Asian continent, remains inconceivable to Western eyes. From an anthropological point of view, the phenomenon is understood as a social fact, which finds its causes and their impacts at a collective and not an individual level. It is argued that the roots of the phenomenon should not be sought in economic differences, but on the social discrimination policy by the Chinese state which has been increasing as the years go. In this sense, it should not be understood simply as an act of religious nature, but rather as social and political. However, religious particularities have given this phenomenon distinctive features. Trying to use as many anthropological concepts and views as possible, it is concluded that, contrary to the simplistic and “primitive” conceptions of Tibetans by the majority of Chinese, this practice involves an act of immense complexity and social significance.

First, it should be noted that there are virtually no anthropologists in the area of self-immolation today. There are also no foreign journalists, because access to the area is extremely limited. Monasteries and towns linked to immolations were blocked and are guarded by military troops under the pretext of “protecting the people” and ensure “social order”. Time magazine declared that the Tibetan self-immolation was the #1 most underreported story of 2011 (2). As a result, it is difficult to rely on firsthand ethnographic research on the ground. Being the participant observation the main source for anthropological analysis, in these case we have to rely on anthropological material of relative antiquity and ethnographic studies about Tibetan exiles who have provided most of the information.

Having noticed this, it must be said that there is a Chinese common perception that Tibetans, as a traditional society mired in myths and rituals, are “simple and primitive” people who do not recognize how much they have benefited from China ‘s generosity. That assumption is similar to some of the earliest anthropological approaches on non-western societies (e.g. Morgan, Tylor or Frazer). Although some Chinese express sympathy and understanding in private, most see the acts of immolation under the assumption that the perpetrators must have been deceived by external forces who manipulated their “primitive and simple minds” (1).

But the reality of this practice is much more complicated. Although the social practice of auto immolation  is novel in these claims, it is part of a tradition of protest against Chinese rule in Tibet. Meanwhile, self-immolation as a form of political protest is much more common than most people think. It mainly prevails in countries that are home to many Buddhists and Hindus, who have long ascetic traditions that sometimes involve radical acts of physical self-denial (3). At the same time, suicide protest has a long history in Chinese regions. In recent years, protest suicides have intensified among marginalized Chinese groups. However, Tibetans frame the practice in the specifically Buddhist expression of intentional conquest of death, in an entirely different cosmology (4).

Self-immolation in Tibet is characterized by the fact that one acts on behalf of a collective cause, and this act inspires others to perform similar acts. In this sense, their actions can be understood as a social fact in the sense of Durkheim, which arises not from individual pulses, but from the specific social conditions of being Tibetan in China today (5). Tibetans have been protesting  against the “occupation and unjust government” of China since 1950. Since then, China has gradually introduced more subtle repression through policies that weaken and deprive certain rights to the native Tibetan population, through varying degrees of daily oppression. In addition, since 1989 Tiananmen protests, the Chinese state has given explicit priority to the “stability above all” policy. The goal is to combine political and cultural controls from above with rapid economic growth from below to theoretically produce support for the party-state. This imposition of stability acts against any potential politic, cultural, legal or spiritual source of opposition (1).

Ben Hillman (6) attributed the tension in the region to uneven development, highlighting the levels of illiteracy among Tibetans, preventing them from competing in the market. Social indices show that Tibetans are behind the average of China in all respects. However, this argument does not consider the long historical nature of the ethnic conflict. Tibetan resistance has a history that predates the economic leap of China in recent decades (7). Also, self immolators have been mostly young Buddhist monks who were born after the economic reforms of 1976, at a time of relative material welfare. Despite this, they perceive in their social space a restriction on their freedom (5).

So the government´s strategy of development and modernization projects may not be the solution, but one of the causes of these problems, in a society with strong ancestral cultural values and community effervescence, a case of a “proud primitive society”. As Fischer (8) points out, based on interviews with Chinese government officials in the region, despite that the economic strategies had been successful, political stability policies had been a total failure, which demonstrates the complexity of the phenomenon. The roots of the claims are based on ethnic and nationalist demands in opposition to the legitimacy of the state authority, which is not limited to the domain of politics, but embraces the wider field of religion and cultural practices (9).

At the same time, the obsessive securitization in the region has created an environment in which collective acts of resistance are virtually impossible. But it is precisely this “stable” environment sought by the state that has produced self-immolation as a form of recurring  protest  (1). These acts require little planning and are virtually impossible to stop. At the same time, they convey an unmistakable message of resistance. It is the most dramatic way to talk when everything else is muted (10). In addition, self-immolation makes impossible the punishment: the perpetrator cannot be reached by the long arms of the feared security forces (11). Thus, in a highly symbolic act, self-immolations are both a sign of protest and a demonstration of the limitations of the State (9). The body on fire, often covered in barbed wire to avoid arrest, can neither be regulated, dispossessing the State from his monopoly of law and violence, in an act of rebellion that seeks to generate empathy and conscience without harm to others.

None of this means, however, that the monks who have self immolated have obtained a religious recognition for their actions. Buddha, after all, was opposed to any kind of murder, including suicide (12). The Vinaya, regulatory moral framework of Buddhism, contain clear sanctions against taking one ‘s life. This entails certain contradiction with stories where, in his many lives, Buddha himself gave his flesh, blood and body shape as an illustration of impermanence, achieving the highest state of Buddhahood (13). From this conception, being the religion a social phenomenon rather than an individual one (Drukheim/Mauss), auto-immolations would be acts of sacrifice, offering the body for the benefit of others. Pain is not only an expression of despair or resistance, but its presence suggests a kind of virtuous action. Immolations thus complicate the model of nonviolence and violence as immutable and distinct categories (14).

But the monks being the main protagonists of this story may have to do not so much with religious issues, but with the social division in these societies, where the spiritual guidance of the monks is important as a social and political reference (15). This represents a difference from other Buddhist societies, where one can observe greater separation between the magical/religious empowerment of these figures and their political representation (16). In Tibetans case, the status of being a monk represents an institution within the order of the society (Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Mauss), strengthened by the diffuse power of the social and symbolic capital of being seen as “great men” (Godelier). In this sense, their immolation in protest is not directly channeled as a tribute to religion or the realization of virtue, but mainly has to do with the idea that clerics have the responsibility to represent the aspirations, and now the hardships, of the society (7). From an anthropological point of view, the social is as important in this case as the religious, because the function of self-sacrifice is understood as a fusion of religious and political duty. Self-immolations are an expression of religion as a symbol (Geertz, 1966), but also as assuming a function within society (Radcliffe-Brown).

As for the origins of this tradition, it is a moot point whether the idea was inspired by the recent success of the self-immolation in Tunisia in 2010, or the famous cases of self-immolation by monks in Vietnam in the 1960s, or more likely, by the fairly common practice of self-immolation as a political protest in India (8). Others argue that, ironically, sacrifice as a political act is something that the Chinese Communists would have introduced into Tibet (7). Speaking strictly, although the spirit of sacrifice is held in Tibetan Buddhism,  there is no tradition of self immolate in the history of Tibet (8); this is a strange concept that Tibetans now have appropriated from the language of resistance of the Communist Party. Moreover, from the anthropological point of view of translation, there is no equivalent Tibetan term to the English word “sacrifice”. Tibetans have difficulty finding appropriate terminology to express this concept, having no easy way to convey the feelings that embodies (5) (7), so we can see here a clear case of the cultural process of contact (Herskovitz) or diffusion in the form of influences coming from other societies.

Regrettably, such acts are unlikely to gain concessions from the Chinese authorities. In an authoritarian system, the cycle of resistance and repression is an inevitable consequence of the inflexibility of the regime. At the same time, for many in the Chinese civil society, there is no surprise in the death of Tibetans. It simply reaffirms its barbarity, enabling the State to use repression “against uncivilized populations” (7). And so, while the cult of stability makes any other form of protest almost impossible in Tibet, the problems that drive the protests -religious oppression, the second – class status of Tibetans, the exploitation of the poors- have not disappeared. This practice has now acquired a deep cultural, social and religious significance as a form of self-sacrifice for a higher cause. Because of that, the contribution of anthropologists in understanding the phenomenon can be very useful in helping to stop these acts and to unite the parties.

References (ISO norms)

  1. Carrico, Kevin. Foreign Policy. China’s Cult of Stability Is Killing Tibetans. [Online] 06 13, 2017. [Cited: 10 20, 2017.] http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/06/13/self-immolation-and-chinas-state-cult-of-stability-tibet-monks-dalai-lama/.
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Lautaro Nahuel Rubbi

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Lautaro Nahuel Rubbi

Lic. en Gobierno y Relaciones Internacionales (UADE) - Lic. en Política y Administración Pública (UADE) - Posgrado en Seguridad Internacional, Desarme y No Proliferación (NPSGlobal) - Actualmente cursa la Maestría en Estudios Internacionales en la U. Torcuato Di Tella - Investigador y becario del CONICET - Lrubbi@estadointernacional.com

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