It is time once again to express concern for those Tibetans, particularly Buddhist nuns and monks, who have been attacked as so-called “separatists” by the Chinese government.
Tibetan leaders, including the Dalai Lama, do not seek separation from China, but rather the end of Chinese colonization, including a domestic national constitution that protects Tibet’s linguistic, religious and cultural autonomy. This middle way, which would maintain Chinese control of foreign affairs and defense, but allow Tibetan domestic autonomy, is supported by Australia’s All-Party Parliamentarians Group for Tibet, of which I am the chairperson.
Tragically, there has been a deterioration in conditions on the ground for indigenous Tibetans in the past 12 months, together with a continuing international indifference to their plight and the deliberate erosion of their rich and ancient culture. Since my previous report a year ago, the growing anger and despair of Tibetans has led to increasingly deadly clashes between protesters and Chinese security forces. This is the most significant escalation of the conflict since the riots in Lhasa in March 2008, which saw the death of more than 20 Tibetans.
Recently, Lobsang Sangay took over from the Dalai Lama as the political head of the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India. Following the latest outbreak of violence, he has called for the international community to send a UN fact-finding mission to the region.
“How long and how many tragic deaths are necessary before the world takes a firm moral stand?” he asked.
The most dramatic aspect of the conflict between indigenous Tibetans and the Chinese is the emergence of a new and appalling form of protest, self-immolation. The cycle of self-immolation began on March 16 last year, when a 20-year-old Buddhist monk, Lobsang Phuntsok, set himself alight in Sichuan Province, apparently to commemorate the 2008 uprisings. Since that date, at least 16 Tibetans, mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, have copied this terrible form of protest.
Those if us old enough can recall the actions of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who self-immolated at a downtown Saigon intersection in June 1963. That moment was captured by a US photojournalist and reproduced on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Like the Tibetan monks who have followed in his wake, he too was protesting the persecution of co-religionists. Duc’s last words, written in anticipation of his agonizing protest, sought not to incite hatred against his oppressors, but instead pleaded for their compassion and tolerance.
The dignity of his stance was enhanced by his stillness as the flames consumed his body. New York Times journalist David Halberstam, who witnessed the event, wrote that “as he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound.”
Forty-seven years later, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, self-immolated in the city of Sidi Bouzid following humiliating treatment from a municipal officer. This not only aroused the Tunisian public and fomented the subsequent revolution, but is also widely believed to be the catalyst for protests from Morocco to Bahrain. Former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down after 23 years in power. As the Times editorialized when naming Bouazizi its Person of 2011, “his brief life and agonizing death are a fanfare for the common man.”