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Thondup Tsering: Understanding Tibet’s soldiers of freedom, justice and nonviolence

  • FILE - In this March 26, 2012 file photo, Tibetan exile Jamphel Yeshi screams as he runs engulfed in flames after setting himself on fire at a protest in New Delhi, India, against Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to India. Yeshi died Wednesday, March 28, 2012.  (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

    FILE - In this March 26, 2012 file photo, Tibetan exile Jamphel Yeshi screams as he runs engulfed in flames after setting himself on fire at a protest in New Delhi, India, against Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to India. Yeshi died Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)

  • Exiled Tibetans wear headbands during a rally to mark World Human Rights Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. At least 86 people have set themselves on fire since 2009. Tibetans also mark Dec. 10 as Nobel Peace Prize Day, the day the Dalai Lama received the Nobel peace prize in 1989. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

    Exiled Tibetans wear headbands during a rally to mark World Human Rights Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. At least 86 people have set themselves on fire since 2009. Tibetans also mark Dec. 10 as Nobel Peace Prize Day, the day the Dalai Lama received the Nobel peace prize in 1989. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)

  • Area Tibetans and supporters gather together outside of city hall in Northampton Wednesday as part of an 85 hour vigil held in memory of the 85 tibetans who have died from self-immolation in the past few years.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

    Area Tibetans and supporters gather together outside of city hall in Northampton Wednesday as part of an 85 hour vigil held in memory of the 85 tibetans who have died from self-immolation in the past few years.
    JOSH KUCKENS

  • FILE - In this March 26, 2012 file photo, Tibetan exile Jamphel Yeshi screams as he runs engulfed in flames after setting himself on fire at a protest in New Delhi, India, against Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to India. Yeshi died Wednesday, March 28, 2012.  (AP Photo/Manish Swarup, File)
  • Exiled Tibetans wear headbands during a rally to mark World Human Rights Day in New Delhi, India, Monday, Dec. 10, 2012. At least 86 people have set themselves on fire since 2009. Tibetans also mark Dec. 10 as Nobel Peace Prize Day, the day the Dalai Lama received the Nobel peace prize in 1989. (AP Photo/Tsering Topgyal)
  • Area Tibetans and supporters gather together outside of city hall in Northampton Wednesday as part of an 85 hour vigil held in memory of the 85 tibetans who have died from self-immolation in the past few years.<br/>JOSH KUCKENS

Not long ago, self-immolation was unheard of in Tibet. Of the 95 Tibetans who lit their bodies on fire in Tibet, 80 are said to have died following their protest but the condition and whereabouts of the remaining 15 are unknown. In November alone, there were 28 self-immolations in occupied Tibet. Almost all those who lit their bodies on fire have consistently called for freedom in Tibet, the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to his homeland, independence for Tibet and unity of Tibetan people.

The Chinese first took our land, then our way of life, our culture and our language. Now they are trying to control our minds by regulating what we should or should not be thinking, to whom we should pray or not pray and what music we should or should not listen to.

When people are pushed into a corner this hard, and the world too often stands by as a silent spectator, Tibetans in Tibet are forced to take drastic actions. Fortunately these have been nonviolent to others. These acts of lighting oneself on fire should be seen in this backdrop and must be recognized as part of a life-or-death struggle against the continued Chinese colonization of Tibet.

They should not be seen as suicides. There are fundamental differences between these two acts. Often the motivation for suicide is to find a way out from the unbearable pain or suffering for an individual. In this case the main beneficiary is the individual and is caused by depression and hopelessness. In Tibet, the monks and nuns, men and women, nomads and writers who have lit their bodies on fire have taken this drastic action not for themselves but for the good of the Tibetan cause.

Lama Sobha in a recorded testimony states, “This is not to seek personal fame or glory… I am taking this action neither for myself nor to fulfill a personal desire nor to earn an honor .... I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering.”

Likewise, Jamphel Yeshi, who set his body on fire in Delhi on March 26, in a handwritten note states, “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.”

Another clear distinction between suicide and self-immolation in Tibet is the hope and belief that something good will come out of their drastic action. In a handwritten note, Nyingkar Tashi, who lit his body on fire on Nov. 11, wrote, “My hope is for all six million Tibetans to learn Tibetan language, to speak in Tibetan, to wear Tibetan, and to be united.”

The Tibetan writer Gudrub put things this way: “We as sons and daughter of the Land of Snow will win the battle. We will win the battle through truth, by shooting the arrows of our lives, by using the bow of our mind.”

An important distinction between those who tie explosives to their bodies from those lighting their bodies on fire in Tibet is the fact that Tibetans are determined not to cause any harm to anyone else to promote their just cause. It is no accident that even after 95 incidents of self-immolation in occupied Tibet, not one person, not one Chinese, has been hurt, maimed or killed. This is a great testimony to the unshakable faith and commitment to non-violence by the Tibetan people.

These drastic actions are not targeted against the Chinese people but against the policy of intolerance, hatred and repression that is the hallmark of the Chinese leadership in occupied Tibet.

In my mind, the Tibetans who lit their bodies on fire are similar to soldiers going to war to protect the honor and safety of their people and country. Yes, these soldiers of Tibet, when they go onto the battlefield, don’t carry high-powered assault rifles with the intent to take down their enemy, but rather are armed with compassion, courage and commitment to nonviolence and hope.

The hope is that world leaders who believe in freedom, liberty and social justice will answer their call for help. That the Chinese leadership will find the courage and wisdom to address the grievances of the Tibetan people.

They are indeed Tibet’s soldiers of freedom, justice and nonviolence and that is how they should be seen, recognized and remembered.

Thondup Tsering of Amherst is a community organizer.

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