On Sunday two young Tibetan men self-immolated in Lhasa, one of whom died at the scene before police swiftly erased any trace of the incident (BBC). I called a friend in the city, and we discussed everything other than the incident. It went unmentioned, as these things do in Lhasa, where talk is dangerous.
At least 37 Tibetans have self-immolated since March of 2011, with most of the incidents taking place in eastern Tibet, an area the Chinese government considers a part of China. Sunday’s self-immolations were the first to spread to central Tibet and its capital, and the two young men chose one of the city’s most pivotal landmarks as the backdrop to their protest against China’s repressive rule—the Jokhang Temple. Built in the 7th century, the temple is one of Lhasa’s most important Buddhist sites, and it lies at the center of the Barkor, a devotional circuit where pilgrims circumambulate and a neighborhood of sorts where many Tibetans reside. A police station is located close to the entrance, and tents are set up along the route around the temple, under which a handful of policemen sit drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Any sign of dissidence would surely be quelled instantly, but knowing this did not deter the two young men. Neither did the possibility of their death.
Up until Sunday the self-immolations occurred in places I had never before seen, and thereby could not fathom. The mind has a hard time comprehending disasters, especially in places it has never seen. Maybe this is why those who never saw the World Trade Towers standing had a difficult time interpreting the significance of their fall. Maybe this is why we photograph and film and erect museums and memorials–not to remember (because remembering is difficult) but to explain, to portray what once was.
Yet I have seen the Jokhang Temple, I have walked through the plaza countless times, and I still cannot fathom what it would be like to watch two young men light themselves on fire at the base of the enormous temple, the sheer size of which is diminished through a lens. Would they look somehow smaller in the shadow of it, or larger than life? How many would notice, but more importantly, how many would understand? How many would comprehend? How many would remember?
If the Chinese government were to have its way, no one would. In China, online searches for Jokhang Temple “turned up a message saying that according to laws and policies no search results could be shown” (NYTimes blog).