How many Tibetans must light themselves on fire in an act of protest against China’s repressive rule before the world stops to take notice? Thirty.
On Monday, a 27 year-old Tibetan man doused himself in a flammable liquid and struck a match, engulfing his body in flames as he sprinted 50 yards in the midst of an estimated 600 protesters. The method was the same as the 29 who came before him, but unlike those, Jamphel Yeshi’s self-immolation was set in a democratic nation, in plain view of a massive audience, and plenty of camera lenses and mobile phones captured his protest as soon as it happened. In the next twenty-four hours, the images exploded across the internet, and the story was seemingly everywhere—from news desks in Cambodia to the New York Times.
Since January alone, 18 Tibetans have self-immolated inside Tibet, but the world has seen no videos, merely pixelated cell phone images of a few of the 30 total incidents since 2009; evidence of China’s crackdown in Tibet. Jamphel Yeshi’s protest swept through the media seemingly as quickly as the flames that engulfed him, because he was visible—there was immediate access to images and witnesses, and no need to navigate the Great Firewall of China. On top of this, Jamphel Yeshi left a hand-written letter, penned on the 16th.
The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights. If you have any empathy, stand up for the Tibetan people.
We demand freedom to practice our religion and culture. We demand freedom to use our language. We demand the same right as other people living elsewhere in the world. People of the world, stand up for Tibet. Tibet belongs to Tibetans. Victory to Tibet!
In an NBC news report featuring a clip of Yeshi’s self-immolation, a professor in Hong Kong remarked that, while the Chinese government continues to offer “economic support” in Tibet, the Tibetan people are expressing that they want “more autonomy, better respect for their religion and culture.” This assertion is wrong on two counts.
First of all, many fail to express how the “economic support” hardly helps Tibetans directly, and comes at a devastating cost to freedoms of speech, religion, and movement. Likewise, infrastructure and development are contributing to catastrophic environmental issues that endanger Tibetan livelihoods in the region—these include changes in hydrology, loss of biodiversity, rampant mining and resource extraction, grassland desertification, and permafrost degradation.
Secondly, the Tibetan people are certainly not calling for “more autonomy” and “better respect for their religion and culture” because they possess neither respect nor autonomy from the Chinese government, only superficially. Each of the Tibetans who have self-immolated, along with countless others that have risen up in protest this year alone, have not called for more autonomy or respect; they have demanded freedom and/or independence, and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.
On Wednesday, Jamphel Yeshi succumbed to the burns that covered ninety percent of his body, dying in a hospital bed in India. That same day, Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in New Delhi, India for the BRIC Summit, and a 20 year-old monk in eastern Tibet self-immolated and died—an indication that these tragic acts will continue.
Now that we know how many lives it costs for the world to take notice, the question remains, will people act?
International Campaign for Tibet, Self-Immolation Fact Sheet:
Stand Up for Tibet, Self-Immolation Fact Sheet:
Stand Up for Tibet, Get Involved: http://standupfortibet.org/
News and resources:
Lhasa Rising, the official blog of Students for a Free Tibet India (contains an alternate translation):
CBC News, Tibetan sets self on fire in New Delhi protest (graphic images):
New York Times Blog, Tibetan Activist Who Self-Immolated Leaves Letter Behind:
New York Times, India Tightens New Delhi’s Tibetan Districts on Eve of Summit:
New York Times, Tibetan Exiles Rally Around Delhi Self-Immolator:
New York Times Blog Tibetan Who Self-Immolated in Delhi Dies:
BBC News, Tibetan self-immolation activist in India dies:
Wikipedia, Immolations by Tibetans protesting Chinese rule: