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Hope And Pity Among Exile Tibetans As Immolations Reach 100
More than 100 Tibetans have now attempted to sacrifice their lives since 2009, publicly setting themselves on fire to protest oppressive policies in Tibetan areas of China.
Candle flames light the faces of Tibetan exiles in the small Himalayan town of Dharamsala, India. Here at the Dalai Lama’s temple: a vigil for the Tibetans who have self-immolated to protest Chinese policies. Tibet Parliament-in-exile member Kalsang Damdul says Beijing claims the suicides are organized and inspired by the Dalai Lama.
"They are totally spontaneous individual acts out of desperation. The situation in Tibet is so difficult - there is no opportunity for protest, for freedom of speech, so they are taking this drastic action," he said.
The immolations have drawn the world’s attention, but done little to change Beijing’s policies. Some analysts say the Dalai Lama should do more to stop the suicides. However, others like Fulbright fellow Patrick Dowd say the Tibetan spiritual leader is in a difficult position.
"If he comes out against the immolations then we have had 100 immolators, and he is saying their actions are wrong. How are their families going to cope with this idea? If he comes out and supports the immolations, the Chinese are obviously going to feel affirmed in their claims that this is all being instigated by the Dalai Lama," said Dowd.
Of the 100 self-immolators, at least 82 have died. Sonam’s nephew was one of them. He spent a week in a hospital before succumbing to his burns.
"Inside too much burn, outside too much burn. He cannot live," he said. "He requested them to let him die: ‘I need to die for my country, for my people,’ he said.”
"It is very tragic. I think everyone in this community lives in dread of hearing that afternoon announcement: Someone will go by with a loudspeaker and announce another immolation. There is a lot of sadness. But at the same time, I think there is a sense of pride that these people are sacrificing themselves for their nation and for their people, and that that sacrifice should be honored," said Fulbright fellow Patrick Dowd.
Tzering’s closest cousin also died after setting himself on fire. Despite the sadness, the young man says Tibetans feel pity for the Chinese, not anger.
“I want to tell the Tibetan, don’t lose your hope," he said. "Your every individual effort will continue to make a difference in the world. So, never give up. No matter what will happen to us, we are going to face every challenge.”
For 54 years, Tibetans have made Dharamsala their home-in-exile. Despite all that time, people here remain optimistic that one day there will be an end to the suffering of their friends and relatives living in China-controlled Tibet.
Australia Presses China for Tibet Visit
Analysts say China’s hardline stance on denying most diplomatic visits to Tibetan areas of the country will continue. Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said that Canberra’s ambassador in Beijing, Frances Adamson, has been trying unsuccessfully for a year to visit the autonomous region to investigate why Tibetan activists continue to set themselves on fire.
Kerry Brown, the executive director of the China Studies Center at the University of Sydney, says the authorities in Beijing are not keen to allow outside scrutiny of the disputed region.
“Normally a diplomatic visit by an Australian would not be a problem. I mean, these have happened and I suppose this shows just how sensitive this issue is, you know, how nervous the leadership is," Brown noted. "It really, kind of, is a kind of indicator of just how difficult an area of, you know, activity and policy this is at the moment.”
No country openly disputes Beijing's claim to sovereignty over Tibet. But the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, says Tibet was once independent and has been colonized by China. He now advocates for greater Tibetan autonomy, but not independence. Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of overseeing a secessionist campaign and of organizing the immolations.
Brown says, with a new leadership team in place in Beijing, it is highly unlikely China’s stance on Tibet will soften.
“Tibet arouses for the Chinese government a particular set of issues about their legitimacy, about claims about their lack of human rights granted to ethnic Tibetans. The bottom line, I think, is it is an issue about which they do not want particular dialogue with outside parties. They are increasingly not in the mood to listen to, you know, any kinds of external lectures,” Brown said.
Canberra is pushing Beijing for more regular meetings between officials and ministers, similar to those Australia already has in place with countries like the United States, but China has yet to respond to the proposal.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr says the new arrangements could include an annual summit between the Australian prime minister and Chinese president, as well as separate meetings between foreign and economic ministers.
China is Australia’s biggest trading partner. The export of minerals, including iron ore, is at the heart of a relationship that has helped the government in Canberra maintain economic growth despite the global financial crisis.
The faces, voices and names of two sources for this article have been altered to protect their identity.