Last month, two Tibetan Buddhist teenagers died of self-immolation just weeks before the 57th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising.
Dorjee Tsering, a 16-year-old student who was living in India as a refugee from Tibetan China, had been considering how best to protest China’s continued rule of Tibet for some time. Radio Free Asia reported that Tsering had told his parents he wanted to do something to express his support for Tibet’s freedom from Chinese rule.
Tsering’s mother, Nyima Yangzom, cautioned him against hasty action. “I rebuked him and said if he wanted to do something for his country, he should do so through his studies,” Yangzom said. “I had no idea he would do something like this.”
At approximately 8:30 am on February 29, Tsering set himself on fire outside a housing complex in Dehradun, India, reportedly shouting “Free Tibet!” Tsering was rushed to the Safdurjung hospital in Delhi, where he died three days later.
“I want His Holiness the Dalai Lama to live long and for Tibet to achieve its independence,” Tsering said from the hospital. “[I] thought that I could sacrifice this body for the Tibetan cause.”
Kalsang Wangdu, an 18-year-old Buddhist monk living in the Sichuan Province of Tibetan China, self-immolated outside his monastery just several hours after Tsering. Although bystanders attempted to douse him with water, the monk died during travel to the capital city’s hospital.
Both teenagers’ acts were in protest of Chinese rule of Tibet, which many view as prolonged illegitimate military occupation. The Republic of China forcibly incorporated Tibet in 1950, and on March 10, 1959—the beginning of the failed Tibetan Uprising—the 14th Dalai Lama fled to India, where he assisted in establishing a Tibetan government-in-exile.
While the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), a temporary exile-period Tibetan administration based in India, is no longer under the formal authority of the Dalai Lama, the religious figure continues to be a rallying point of Tibetan protest against Chinese rule. The Chinese government has banned the display of photos of the Dalai Lama, whom they accuse of instigating violent behavior and inciting an “atmosphere of terror” across Tibetan prefectures and in the Tibet Autonomous Religion.
London-based advocacy group Free Tibet estimates that 140 protesters have self-immolated since March 2009, the 50th anniversary of the uprising. While self-immolation has long been associated with Buddhist monks and particularly within Mahayana Buddhism, such protests are increasingly being committed by Tibetan laypeople. Free Tibet director Eleanor Byrne-Rosengren lamented that, as long as Tibet remains under Chinese rule, the protests are likely to continue. “Whether inside or outside the country, young Tibetans feel the sense of injustice and are driven to act because of it,” Byrne-Rosengren said.
Tsering’s sister, Samten Dolma, told Quartz India that although her brother had never even seen Tibet, he partook of the strong cultural memory that continues to galvanize Tibetan refugees to fight for Tibet’s freedom.
“Even the youngest of children know about the crisis in Tibet, even if they have lived in India all their life,” Dolma said. “They chant ‘azaadi chaiye’ (we want freedom) on the streets.”
--by Caroline Matas
Image Source: Tibetan Demonstrators. Photo by futureatlas.com via Flickr Creative Commons.