Suicide Protesters in Eastern Tibet: The Shifting Story of a People’s Tragedy

Memo #302

By Antonio Terrone – a-terrone [at]

Terrone_photoThe recent wave of self-immolations across the Eastern Tibetan regions of the People’s Republic of China continues to leave the world in dismay for both its violence and determination. They also represent a new shift in terms of the demography of protesters in Tibetan society. Among the 131 immolators as of May 30, 2014, only nineteen seem to have left behind notes of testament or last wills. A reading of these notes offers insights into the motives behind those acts. Many protesters address issues of religious oppression, tight control by local authorities, their aspiration for the return of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama to Tibet and independence. A few notes, however, address fellow Tibetans, calling for a revival of ethnic unity, traditional Tibetan clothing, and Tibetan language.

While, politically, self-immolations have come to epitomize Tibetans’ most recent iconic gestures of protest, religiously, they have often been viewed as enacting the Buddhist virtue of generosity, a ‘perfection’ (pāramitā) emphasized in canonical Mahayana literature such as the Lotus Sutra. In its latter valence, gestures of self-immolation by Buddhist devotees typically exemplify the nuanced correlation between Buddhist values and violence, between self-sacrifice and suicide. Self-immolators typically imitate the Buddha’s offering of his own body for the wellbeing of other living beings and understand their actions as nonviolent and in tune with Buddhist ethical standards.

However, as self-immolation data compiled by the APM shows, only a portion of the total number of self-immolators represent Buddhist monastics, typically at the forefront of socio-political protest in Tibet. Since 2009 the vast majority of self-immolators have been ordinary lay people, including herdsmen, students, farmers, and taxi drivers. One of the most striking and worrisome results, however, is the high number of young people among those who immolated themselves, with an average age of twenty years. What does this information tell us about these events? Probably that concerns about the present conditions and future of many Tibetans in China are no longer predominantly voiced by monastics and older adults. More and more laypeople as well as youth are becoming politically involved and are expressing interest in more radical forms of protest against their perceived oppression. The vacuum caused by the loss of socio-political rights is being filled by renewed identity through the heroic martyrdom for the benefit of their community.

Antonio Terrone (Ph.D.) is Assistant Professor of Tibetan Buddhist Studies at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan. His research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of Tibetan Buddhist tradition, contemporary Tibet, China, visionary movements, and religion and politics in China.

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