Self-immolations of Tibetans, an interview with Thierry Dodin

Considering the recent resurgence of self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet takes stock one more time of this complex issue. The following is the first part of a comprehensive interview with Tibetologist and TibetInfoNet director, Thierry Dodin, that was carried out in early 2014. The original text has been edited, obsolete passages were deleted and some new passages added to meet the current stand of the discussion. The interview being very long, it has been divided in three different thematic sections to facilitate reading.

Part I: Why are Tibetans doing that?

Q: What can be identified as the main motivation of those Tibetans who take such a drastic and brutal means as to burn themselves alive?

A: First of all, let us establish that before putting an end to your life in such a terrible way, you must have gone through a lot of suffering, and also considered other, less drastic options, before finally settling for burning yourself. This is not something you do simply in a sudden impulse. Behind each and every case of a Tibetan burning him or herself is a very personal human drama and this drama does not begin with the act of self-immolation itself. In fact, it is the act of self-immolation itself that stands at the end of a long drama. Through this act, the individual who burns himself intends to put an end to this drama. The individual journey to this act, the ‘inner story’, is just what we need to know if we want to understand what happened in full and why.

Self-immolation, Tapey, a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Ngaba, Tibet.Tapey, a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Ngaba, Tibet.
27 February 2009  License: CC BY 2.0

Unfortunately, a lot must be left to conjectures, because we have very little information on those who chose to end their lives in this way, and very few of them left comprehensive notes behind – and among those few, some might well be apocryphal. Their individual, personal stories disappeared with them. When did they decide to take that fateful step and what gave them the ultimate impulse? All this we’d need to know in order to get an accurate and comprehensive picture. So we are left with speculations, a sort of screen on which we can easily project what we think, or want to think. In the highly politicized context of the Tibetan issue this is not exactly the best recipe for accuracy.

This being said, there is no question that the Tibetan self-immolations are meant to be political statements, not even the Chinese authorities doubt this. But this assessment alone is not terribly enlightening. Interestingly, the few farewell messages attributed to those who set themselves alight do not appear particularly radical. The political demands made, if you assume the messages are authentic and have not been tempered with by those who conveyed them to us, are very general and reflect demands long made by many others, for instance the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, the release of the Panchen Lama etc., here and there a call for independence. So we can’t say they ended their lives in such a radical way to underline a radical message. So what could be the reasons then?

A few commentators have stressed that all other, less drastic, forms of protest brought Tibetans nowhere, thus leading to a belief among those who burnt themselves that only this extreme act might bring political change. I personally think that there is not one unique, clearly defined reason or motivation, but rather a range of them. Still, they all are linked to the general and deep-seated frustration with the socio-political situation in Tibet. Also, most of these individuals would have had experienced this situation with particular intensity and pain. There are indications of that in the few details we have about these individuals.

Before discussing this further, let us first reflect on the act itself. Burning oneself is a very visible form of protest. It is also a form of protest which inflicts enormous suffering on the protester, something very violent and shocking. It is an act of radical visibility, extremely disturbing for those who witness it. Harming oneself in this particularly brutal way is a means to demonstrate something to others, without harming them physically. Most have chosen to do that in the middle of the city, witnessed by many others. They normally do not burn themselves in a cave or a forest, where nobody can see them, or where it might take weeks before discovery. We also have evidence that some protesters organized filming or photographing of the act, indicating that it was clearly meant for distribution. If that is so, if visibility is so central, then who is supposed to see it and why?

Logically there are three possible candidates: the Chinese authorities, the international public and fellow Tibetans.

To the Chinese authorities, the act demonstrates determination and defiance, an ultimate escape from their power. It also illustrates the suffering they inflict on Tibetans. There is something very existentialist about that. E.G. I cannot escape reality, I cannot change it, but I can choose not to be part of it and that is my ultimate freedom as an individual. With that I manage to defeat an enemy who is endlessly more powerful than I am as an individual. I impose something on those I perceive as having imposed their will on me for too long. At the same time, I expose them.

At the international level, this is a very powerful statement of protest against China. It demonstrates that the official Chinese line about Tibet being a ‘harmonious’ place is a lie. Furthermore, we may see in that an appeal and a demand for international help. If that is so, there is an assumption that such an act has the power to trigger a global alarm. The question of course is whether that really is so, whether that is a realistic perspective. I would observe, from my experience in Tibet, that today general knowledge about the world outside is far more widespread than one would think, but specific understanding about how it works is still very limited. This is particularly so among uneducated people and let us not forget that the large majority of those who burnt themselves were people of little education (which by the way is an important sociological fact that has been too little taken in account).

Last but not least, the extreme visibility of the act is partly directed at fellow Tibetans. In many of the messages left by self-immolators there is a recurring demand for “unity among Tibetans”, implying perceptions that Tibetans are not speaking with one voice or that the way some arrange themselves with the political situation is deemed inadequate. It seems that many of those who burnt themselves wanted to admonish and galvanise Tibetan society.

Now I’m not pretending all three motivations are there in each and every single case of self-immolation. I’m just defining a scope of motivation and motivations. Beyond that and additionally to that, there are, of course, reasons and motivations rooted and grounded in the personal biographies of the individuals. But, as I said, we don’t really know much about that.

Q: Might there be here also some personal issues at stake?

A: We have no clear proof of that, but there are questions to be raised. I mean, some of them, for instance, were parents of very little children. Now, a politically minded person might go and join some kind of resistance and leave home and family behind for that. But putting an end to one’s life by burning yourself publicly is a fully other dimension. As parents, they will ponder how their children will think about them one day, about the burden of the trauma. Then they must be concerned about their children’s future, including material future. They must know that following their act the family will face extreme pressure from the authorities in one way or the other. There are hints that some of the self-immolators had been distanced from their family and friends. There might be many reasons for that, and it is very likely that these will be linked in one way or the other with the general socio-political situation. But, again, we don’t know enough about the personal lives of the self-immolators to get the full picture.

We know from other waves of self-immolation in other countries that next to a genuine political motivation, very personal issues may be the last impulse for such an act. Let me clarify again, so that there may be no misunderstanding: I am not implying, as does the Chinese propaganda, that people who burnt themselves were failed existences. What I am saying is that you are very unlikely to burn yourself when you have a happy life in general. Now, of course, the political situation in Tibet is a cause of frustration for most. But, extreme cases aside, most do cope with that in one way or the other and get on with their lives. So political frustration is one thing, but we have to question whether it always is the only cause of frustration. In the case of monks repeatedly bullied under political education for instance, the case is obvious. But in the case of average lay people, things will be more complex. People might be unhappy or frustrated for very diverse reasons, depressed or the like. That does not in any way dispense them of having very sound political opinions, which they will see as worth dying for.

Q: So can we say the self-immolators are desperate? There is a controversy about that.

I think the word ‘desperate’ is well meant, but not adequate. The background of it is that actually, in Tibetan culture, there is a very strong disapprobation of suicide. So if people set themselves on fire and invoke the Tibetan issue or even religion in doing so, this creates a great unease in society. To cope with that, many Tibetans justify self-immolations with desperation. It assumes that people’s lives in Tibet are so horribly miserable that they see no other choice than burning themselves. The problem with that is it implies a disenfranchisement of the self-immolators. It makes them objects of an abstract catastrophe, it robs them of their normal human agency and so it ignores that what they did was a conscious choice. These are not people who went crazy because of despair. On the contrary, what they did, whatever we may think of it, was something very fundamentally human. People have an inherent sense of worth and dignity, and precisely that brought these Tibetans to set themselves under fire. They were subjects, not objects. They did what they thought they had to do under the conditions of their lives as they perceived them. Yes, these acts result, at least in part, from the sad political situation, but that does not make them essentially ‘desperate’. There is more here than desperation. These people did what they did, believing—rightly or wrongly—this was the right thing to do, not because they were left with no other option. This is something fundamentally different than for instance hanging oneself, to escape personal problems.

This being said, the depiction of each and every self-immolator as a heroic freedom fighter with nationalist spirit and a will of steel is ridiculously far from reality too. It is just as disenfranchising and dehumanizing, if not even more so, than the depiction of despair. It instrumentalizes the fate of individuals by making them characters like those we used to see in Chinese propaganda in the worst time of the Cultural Revolution, robots for a political purpose. This is pure cynicism. Besides, it ignores the way people and people’s minds work and how dependent they are from the conditions—political and otherwise—that surround them.

I think this distinction also clarifies a lot about the controversy you mentioned. There is no need whatever to define those who set themselves alight either as desperate poor victims or as national heroes. Obviously, these definitions are being made for ideological reasons, which have little to do with compassion for the genuine issues Tibetans in Tibet face, or with understanding of the self-immolators. Heated arguments about the issue of whether self-immolators are desperate or heroes are divisive and extremely deplorable and not a sign of health for the Tibetan movement. The ‘laughing third party’ and hence winner of this virtual battle is clearly the Communist Party of China.

So let’s stick to the facts: In Tibet, where China pretends to have liberated the population from obscurantism and imperialism and led it to a better life, there are dozens of Tibetans who burn themselves to express their political frustration. Full stop. I think that speaks for itself. The regime got the message very clearly. And they are so afraid that we get it too, and they are so helpless about it that their only recourse is defamation and extinguishers. Why then must those who claim to represent Tibetans, themselves Tibetans or not, argue about calling self-immolators heroes or victims? Or think of the ineffable dispute about how many self-immolations there were! Can it get any more undignified?

Q: Are there regions where more Tibetans set themselves on fire and if so why?

A: Yes, very clearly. The movement started around Ngapa prefecture (Chin.: Aba) in general, and there, Kirti monastery in particular. We wrote a comprehensive article about that in November 2011. Essentially, the region has always been particularly restive. It fought the Communist Party of China already during the Long March in the 1930s and in 2008 the protests lasted particularly long there. Then, Kirti monastery is a key monastery of the Gelugpa-order, the ‘State-Church’ of old Tibet, to which also the Dalai Lama belongs. This order is, of course, particularly persecuted by the authorities. Almost all major Gelugpa monasteries run into troubles at some point, particularly those whose main incarnations reside abroad, as Tsering Shakya has observed. They are strongly targeted for ‘political education’ etc. Kirti also has an exile-branch in Dharamsala, where the abbot resides. It has been very vocal in reporting protests inside Tibet. All that makes Kirti the perfect object of hate for the Chinese authorities. Repression after 2008 has been very harsh in Kirti and Ngapa/Aba, and generated even more restiveness. During this process, the number of monks came down to 1,000 in late 2011, from about 2,800 before that. Particularly targeted were younger monks, who were beaten, robbed, made fun of, bullied, with many forcibly driven out of the monasteries and banned from taking up a monastic life. It is among this population of frustrated youth that the self-immolations we are speaking about started. Then affiliated locations and neighboring areas joined in. Later on, the wave swept over to laypeople, many of whom had some links to monastic life. Then other groups who are also under pressure, for instance nomads, gradually became involved.

You can see that the pattern behind this wave of self-immolations is not as anarchic as it may appear. It unfolds within some kind of system. But it’s neither a dark plan remotely controlled from abroad as proclaimed by the Chinese authorities, nor the gradual flaming up leading to the big final revolution that radical exiles want to read in it. Rather, it follows its own inner logic, along existing fault lines created by the regime. The first self-immolations emerged as a response to what were essentially localized issues. Repression and inadequate reactions by the authorities helped the wave gather full momentum. It spread following broadly regional, sectarian and institutional affiliations. Then it jumped over to new locations, partly by solidarity, but also, and in fact mainly, because people could easily identify with the self-immolators, because the oppressive regime caused similar or other issues in their areas. As a whole, however, the wave remains widely consigned to the East of Tibet and to groups who experience what is essentially a colonial regime in particularly harsh fashion.

Q: Is there also a sociological element in the wave of self-immolation?

Yes, definitely. For instance, most of the self-immolators had a relatively low level of education, including some of the monks (probably because they were not allowed to attend the monasteries). The phenomenon is socially rooted in the lower middle-class, if not even the poorer part of the population. There are indications that this part of the population partly feels estranged also from their fellow Tibetans. That, I think, explains the demand for unity made by some self-immolators. The story is not as simple as most narratives want us to believe. The same is true of the acceptance of the events by the general public.

Of course, there is an emotional response particularly in the regions from which the self-immolators originate. But at the same time a distance remains, because, as a consequence of the wave, life has become very difficult. For instance, some of the students who protested against Chinese language slowly replacing Tibetan told us they have been handicapped by the self-immolations. Their sense was that they have to operate within the system to have a chance of success. Any radical system criticism makes it easy for the authorities to suppress them. Though feeling a strong solidarity with self-immolators emotionally, their greatest fear was not the reaction of the Chinese authorities to their demonstrations, but that these might offer a stage to self-immolators and so an excuse for the authorities to crack down on the students’ movement. Fortunately, that did not happen.

So, yes, there is a divide among Tibetans as to which way is the best to face the authorities and that is part of the equation. However, this is a disagreement on strategies. All in all, solidarity prevailed even in the most tense times.

Q: Did the Chinese authorities make things worse with their reactions?

Some timely and demonstrative de-escalation measures by the authorities might have prevented this wave from gaining real impetus. But to expect this level of flexible and intelligent response from an obedience-oriented top down institution like the Communist Party of China is not realistic. In particular, the mid-level of power that is disconnected from the grass root and depending on pleasing the top brass with zealous and diligent obedience is not good at that. This is a problem inherent in the system.

Later, some more intelligent measures were imposed from above, but much too late. For instance you might have noticed that there have been far less reports about ‘patriotic education’ sessions in monasteries going wrong after Xi Yinping took power. Obviously, this will not be purely coincidental. In fact, you hardly hear about ‘patriotic education’ in monasteries anymore. This isn’t because they have disappeared—they are still an important element of the system—but because they have been toned down. Obviously, there has been a realisation in Beijing that hurting the feelings of the monks by forcing them to denounce the Dalai Lama and other such practices does not pay off. But all this was too little, too late. The wave of self-immolation had long reached outside the monasteries and their direct environment and kind of institutionalized.

Palden ChoetsoA Tibetan woman throws a white scarf over Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso, 35 years old, as she burns on a street on the Chume Bridge in the centre of Tawu, Kandze Autonomous Prefecture, Eastern Tibet (Ch. Bing He Lu Road, Daofu, Garzi Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan Province) in November 2011.
© Students For A Free Tibet

Q: How many ordained people (monks and nuns) and how many lay people have burned themselves, and are these mainly young people?

A: That depends how we count and from when etc. Do the few self-immolations that took place in exile belong to it? Does it, in fact, start with Thupten Ngodup who set himself on fire in India already in 1998, or start in early 2011? Then also, quite a few laypeople who burnt themselves were in diverse ways related to monastic life without being actually monks or nuns. All these nuances cannot be captured in figures and statistics. But honestly, the absolute figures do no not matter that much anyway. What does matter is that there is a significant number of self-immolators who were either monks and nuns, former clerics or people who had aspired to become some, but were not allowed to, or in other ways related to monastic life. Most importantly, it is clearly among these circles that self-immolations started. Later, more and more laypeople burned themselves, but that was clearly following the original spark that came from the monastics-related group. Yes, they were mainly young people, in parts very young. But there were also some more senior persons.

Q: Is there any indication that Tibetans might have emulated protest in other parts of the world?

A: I think, at the beginning, clearly yes, and this is nothing really new. Some years ago, we spoke with monks from Drepung monastery who told us that the first protests in 2008 were inspired by the monks’ ‘Saffron Revolution’ of 2007 in Burma. Then, of course, things got out of hand. In the case of the self-immolations in Tibet there is a first case in 2009, but it is rather isolated. The real start of the movement is in March 2011, incidentally just a few weeks after the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunesia triggered the ‘Jasmin revolution’. This is an indication that the first self-immolators hoped to trigger a similar movement in Tibet, although of course the situation here is very different from that in the Middle-East.

By the way, China and particularly India are both countries where there are many self-immolation protests. Very often, these have political backgrounds. Iran and Afghanistan also have huge rates, though it seems motivations there are often more personal. Inspiration for self-immolation might hence have come from many different precedents outside Tibet, but the events of 2010–2011 in the Middle-East are the most likely to have been inspirational. For instance, they were much discussed on blogs in Mainland China, in Tibetan regions and also in exile.


  Read Part II: Self-immolations and Buddhism
  Read Part III: Reactions and Consequences

Thierry Dodin is a Tibetologist. Focal points of his work are cultural history, modern history and social, political and environmental issues in Tibet and the countries and cultures of the Himalayas, as well as in countries of the Buddhist cultural sphere. Since the early 1990’s he has been most closely associated academically with the University of Bonn. He has also been associated in various functions with the Tibet Information Network (TIN), most recently as its executive director. He is the founder and director of TibetInfoNet.

© Thierry Dodin &

30 December 2014
Edited by Joanne Clark.

Header image: © Michael A. Stupa in Ladakh.