The self-immolations are desperate cries for help to the international community, as well as individual acts of self-determination within an authoritarian system that allows few freedoms for Tibetans and punishes expressions of Tibet’s national identity as “seditious.” The men and women who take this terrible course do so with calls for freedom for Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama as their final words.
The Dalai Lama, the internationally revered spiritual leader and recipient of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has not been able to set foot in his homeland since he fled in 1959, following a period of failed détente with the Chinese occupiers of Tibet.
While one may question the tactic, I understand the severe repression that is driving people to pour kerosene over their bodies and light themselves on fire. I am American by birth, but my husband and our family are Tibetan. Every Sunday, I bring our little boy to the YMCA for Tibetan Sunday School. At five years old, he already understands that he is studying Tibetan language not only for his own benefit, but to help preserve Tibetan culture. This is necessary because Tibetan religion and culture are under attack in Tibet.
Tibetans inside Tibet are punished for piety paid to the Dalai Lama, whom Tibetans revere as their protector deity and an emanation of the Buddha of compassion. So-called “patriotic education,” which includes denouncing the Dalai Lama and consuming anti-Tibet propaganda from the Chinese Communist Party, was once concentrated in Tibetan monasteries but is now pervasive in almost every sector of society.
In an ironic twist, the Chinese authorities paid Tibetans to celebrate Tibetan New Year this year; the regime is determined to show the world that Tibetans are free, when the reality is the opposite.