The Dalai Lama lead prayers this week in Dharamsala for the nine Tibetans from the Sichuan province in Western China that have immolated themselves to protest China's policies in Tibet. Over the past seven months five Tibetans have died in immolations, including a nun. Self-immolations are a new occurrence in Tibet; traditional Buddhist doctrine proscribes suicide in any form.
The Chinese reaction has been swift, if unsurprising, in denouncing the Dalai Lama's prayer ceremony. Jiang Yu, China's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, commented, “As we know, such splittist activity at the cost of human life is violence and terrorism in disguise.” It's a little hard to imagine the Dalai Lama engaged in violence and terrorism, although advocating for a free Tibet certainly qualifies as "splittist."
But why the sudden spate of self-immolations? Most of them are occurring in Kirti Monastery, one of the largest and most important Tibetan monasteries, now surrounded by Chinese police. Images of immolation first hit the western press as Buddhist monks in Vietnam immolated themselves in the 60's in political protest. But self-immolation has a long history in Russia, Europe, and India, with India recording 1,500 immolations in 2000-2001 (I would be curious to note how many of these were women and if all of them were entirely voluntary). Regardless, self-immolation is a particularly public and personally violent method of protest, and a new occurrence in the Tibetan region. Despite decades of Chinese rule repressing Buddhist practices, Tibetan monks are still advocating for religious and cultural freedom. These protests have taken a dramatic new turn, however, and not one that anyone wants to see. My prayers are with them.