Thursday, 20 October 2011

Fight of the Warrior Monks

At around 1 pm on 17 October, 20-year-old nun Tenzin Wangmo has set herself on fire while shouting ‘Free Tibet!” She is from the Mamae Dechen Choekhorling Nunnery in Ngaba in Amdo, North-eastern Tibet. Wangmo, who has died from burns, was the first nun and the latest case of self-immolation.

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, writes that China’s “security measures designed to curtail the right to free expression, association, and religious belief in Tibetan monasteries are not legitimate.” Additionally, these measures have ratcheted up tensions as we are seeing in Ngaba. To date nine youths have set themselves on fire and more are most likely in line.

Eight of the nine youths who set themselves on fire
Buddhists believe that the possibility of being born as a human is as rare as a sea turtle sticking its head out of a lone tyre tube floating on a vast ocean. Furthermore, Tibetans also believe that if one takes ones own life, then it would take five hundred rebirths before being reborn in the human realm. If these beliefs are true, then why do Buddhist monks — who are trained in the fundamental teaching of compassion and respect for all sentient life — douse themselves in kerosene and set fire?

The answer lies in Beijing’s failure to understand that the Tibetan people’s aspiration is not for more roads, railways or airports — merely to bring in more Chinese migrants and to transport resources from Tibet to China — but for freedom. Tibetans crave the freedom to practice our religion, speak in our own language and most of all the freedom to decide our future in their own space without being poked and prodded with bayonets.
This fundamental Tibetan aspiration is clearly articulated by 19-year-old Norbu Damdul, who set himself on fire at around noon on 15 October while shouting “Complete Independence for Tibet!” and “Return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet!” Damdul is the seventh case of self-immolation to protest against the People’s Republic’s repressive rule over Tibet.

The situation in Ngaba, where most of the self-immolations are taking place, has now reached a very critical state with Beijing’s increased spending on security leading to monastery blockades, the mass detention of monks and making it mandatory for monks to obtain official permits even to go out of their monastic compound. Earlier this year, Kirti Monastery’s water supply and electricity were cut off and visitors, including the monk’s relatives, were banned from entering into the monastic compound.
Panoramic View of Ngaba with Kirti Monastery at the left
The authorities have now stationed an armed garrison of People’s Armed Police at each of the three main gates leading to Kirti Monastery and another armed contingent has occupied a 20-room section within the monastery. Moreover, the monastery is today carved up into five sections; these are divided into fifty smaller divisions, which are further divided into smaller units for easier security control and to subject the monks to ‘Patriotic Education’ and ‘Strike Hard’ campaigns. This virtual imprisonment, confining them to their rooms, involves intense ideological ‘education’ requiring the roughly 2500 monks to repeatedly recite, ‘I oppose the Dalai clique’, ‘I will not follow splittism’, ‘I love the Communist Party’ and ‘I recognize the Party’s great kindness’. The monks are thus being denied basic fundamental human rights such as freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of thoughts, freedom of religion and above all the freedom to decide their future.

The demand for these freedoms by the monks of Kirti Monastery, and Beijing’s denial and consequent crackdown on the desperate monks, symbolizes the core of Tibet’s China problem. Beijing’s heavy-handed responses — whether it was in 1989 when their own students protested on Tiananmen Square or to the 2008 popular protests in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang) or the current military repression in Ngaba — only provide temporary solution. The root causes of these demonstrations are not being addressed. Without a solution being reached, the protests in Ngaba will continue and the number of Tibetans wanting to die for the struggle is almost certain to escalate.
Aerial view of Kirti Monaetery
China must realize that the increased armed security deployments in Tibet, and particularly in Ngaba, have been a major factor in mounting tensions that have led to continuing peaceful protests in which monks and former monks — as their ultimate form of non-violent action — are setting themselves on fire.

As in the cases on 7 October of 20-year-old Khaying and 18-year-old Choephel, who set themselves on fire (both have since died from injuries and possible torture) the Chinese security personnel first put out the fire and then started beating Damdul before removing from the scene. No information is available on his medical condition or whereabouts.

Tapey, a young monk in his twenties, who set himself on fire in February 2009, was the first-ever case of self-immolation by monks in Tibet. Since then eight youths have set themselves on fire.  Their average age is barely twenty. And so it seems that Tibet’s struggle for freedom is now firmly in the hands of a new proactive generation.

When freedom-of-movement was severely curtailed in Ngaba, Tibetan farmers and householders strung their goats with papers bearing slogans such as Free Tibet. This reveals the extraordinary national resolve when cornered and driven to a state of utter desperation, to remain committed to non-violence and find creative ways to fight back against the occupation. Such peaceful creative resistance will continue until Beijing allows the Tibetan people their legal right to self-determination.

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