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Human Rights

Behind Self-Immolations, a Cultural Genocide?

BEIJING, Jun 22 2012 (IPS) - The Chinese government must not “eliminate individualism” but instead encourage diversity of religion, culture and language, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, stressed – after yet another Tibetan self-immolated last week in China’s Qinghai province.

Speaking at the University of Westminster in London earlier this week, the Dalai Lama exhorted the Chinese government to learn from the ‘success’ of pluralism in India, where he has lived in exile since he fled his homeland in 1959.

While he admitted, “Complete independence is… out of the question”, he bemoaned the “outdated” system of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which Tibetan advocacy groups accuse of crushing Tibetan culture.

The Dalai Lama’s speech follows the self-immolation of a Tibetan herder, Tamdin Thar, who died in Huangnan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, located in northwest China, last week.

The herder was at least the 38th Tibetan to have set himself on fire since 2009 and the 29th to have died. Last month, the immolations spread to the Tibetan capital Lhasa for the first time as two men set themselves alight outside a temple.

Last year, the Dalai Lama accused Beijing of “cultural genocide” in Tibet at a press conference in Tokyo and attributed the unprecedented wave of self-immolations to the government’s increasingly harsh crackdown on Tibetan culture and religion.

<b>Culture under attack</b>

Since the 2008 Tibetan riots, China has unleashed an increasingly harsh crackdown in Tibetan areas of the country. Government policies in monasteries have been felt most keenly: permanent police surveillance, the severing of food and water supplies, and compulsory patriotic education for monks have fueled anger and despair.

This year, Beijing distributed over one million portraits of China’s four most important Communist leaders and Chinese flags to Tibetan monasteries, houses, and schools. Images of the Dalai Lama – Tibet’s most important spiritual figure – have been banned.

But government clampdowns have not only taken place in monasteries. Authorities have shut down a locally-funded Tibetan school offering classes in the Tibetan language and culture, according to the Indian-based Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy.

The Khadrok Jamtse Rokten School, founded in 1989, was forcibly closed on Apr. 2, according to a report by the Tibetan Centre. The school is situated in Ganzi County, known as Kardze in Tibetan, in China’s southwestern Sichuan province, an area of the country where self-immolations have become increasingly frequent. Two teachers were arrested.

The Tibetan poet and author Tsering Woeser, who has been instrumental in highlighting self-immolations on an influential blog, believes such actions are designed to wear down Tibetan culture.

“Language is very important to any race. But in Tibetan areas, the Chinese government is generating education reforms to diminish education in Tibetan language,” Woeser told IPS.

“In Tibetan schools, where classes are supposed to be taught in the Tibetan language, classes are instead taught in Mandarin and even textbooks are in Mandarin.Worse still, civilian-run schools are being shut down gradually.”

“Meanwhile, modern intellectuals, including writers, NGO workers and singers have been arrested and detained,” Woeser added. “I am worried Tibetan culture will die out one day.”

<b>Burning in despair</b>

“That’s why you see these sad incidents have happened, due to this desperate sort of situation,” said the Dalai Lama at the 2011 press conference. “Even Chinese from mainland China who visit Tibet have the impression things are terrible.  Some kind of cultural genocide is taking place.”

Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama of whipping up unrest and has declared that the immolations are “terrorism in disguise”. An op-ed published in the state-run ‘China Daily’ on Monday said there is no “Tibet issue” and it is a fiction “invented by Britain”.

But the advocacy group International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) has also accused China of “cultural genocide”.

In a report entitled ‘60 Years of Chinese Misrule: Arguing Cultural Genocide in Tibet’, published in April, during Genocide Prevention Month, ICT stated that the Chinese authorities have made a systematic and concerted effort to replace organic Tibetan culture with a state-approved version that meets the objectives of the CCP.

“The situation in Tibet is not a case of episodic or discrete human rights violations against Tibetans; Tibetan culture has been targeted for destruction from the beginning (of the CCP’s takeover of Tibet),” ICT’s president Mary Beth Markey told IPS.

“Cultural oppression has been institutionalised through the implementation of various campaigns, regulations and laws,” Markey continued. “Where cultural expression falls within the parameters set by the Chinese state, it is tolerated and even commodified. Where it is not, culture is censored or marginalised through forcible assimilation.”

ICT released the report on Apr. 25, the birthday of Tibet’s Panchen Lama, Gedhun Choekyi Nyima. The religious figure, the second most important in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama, was taken into custody by Chinese authorities in 1995 and has not been heard of since.

Beijing has since anointed its own Panchen Lama, 22-year-old Gyaincain Norbu, who delivered his first public speech outside mainland China this year. While the appearance in Hong Kong was widely seen as an effort from China to garner international recognition for the state-approved Panchen Lama, he is not recognised by the Dalai Lama or the Tibetan government in exile.


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  • Wang

    As copy-cat self-immolations in Tibetan areas in China grabbed the world’s attention over 2012, National broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) released a documentary on self-immolation in the country’s Tibetan-inhabited areas on Dec. 25.

    As an ordinary people, we must feel the pain when fire burst in his arms, his back. Why should they do these brutal things to themselves? Well, they think it is for religion. However, has Buddhist ever praised self-immolation? Religion just tells us to know ourselves, know the world. Especially for Buddhism, to stay in balance and peace is the permanent pursuit of any Buddhist, rather than save anything, or to say, awaken anyone. That’s the kidnapping of political objectives. Only fiercely political considerations may encourage people to die for one or two’s ideal. The poor men became cat’s paw exploited by those with ulterior motives.