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Self-immolations in Tibet must resonate in America

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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.

Tibetans do not even have the freedom to leave Tibet; the authorities capture and detain Tibetans who try to escape. In 2006, Western mountaineers watched in horror – and captured on video – as Chinese border security forces fired on a group of Tibetans, killing a 17-year-old nun who was trying to escape. Those who are not caught also face huge risks.

My husband was carried across steep Himalayan passes when he was seven years old. His mother died across the border in Nepal after giving birth to a baby girl; the baby died shortly afterward. Our close friend’s sisters paid smugglers to help three of their children escape. The two older boys made it, but the littlest one – just 10 years old – died en route. Heartbreaking as these stories are, they are by no means unique.

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