On 27 March, an 81-year-old Tibetan named Tashi Phuntsok, popular by his shortened name ‘Taphun’, committed self-immolation in front of the local Chinese police station in the Ngaba town, world-famous for its Kirti monastery. This was the 160th known case of self-immolation in recent years by Tibetan monks, nuns, youths and ordinary citizens who have consigned their bodies to fire just to express their resistance against the occupation of their country Tibet by China. China occupied Tibet in 1951, and since then, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have perpetuated their vice-like control over Tibet and the Tibetan people. Only a month before Taphun’s self-immolation in Eastern Tibet, Tsewang Norbu, a popular 25-year-old Tibetan singer, too, had taken his own life by self-immolation on 27 February in front of the historic Potala Palace in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
According to details coming out of Tibet, both of these self-immolators were shouting slogans in favour of a ‘Free Tibet’ and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet as fire engulfed their bodies. In both cases, before crowds of passersby could gather there, watchful Chinese security agents of the Public Security Bureau (PSB), omnipresent in uniforms and plainclothes in every street of Tibet, pounced upon the self-immolator and whisked him away.
As has become a regular practice by the Chinese administrators of Tibet, a complete official silence about such events is maintained. The movement of Tibetan people and information is strictly controlled to stop world media from getting any details. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), an international broadcaster from Washington DC in the USA, the Chinese authorities refused to share any information on both of these events. They even refused to confirm that these self-immolations had happened in Lhasa or Ngaba. However, as per the details slowly filtering out of Tibet, RFA and the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) in Dharamshala in India told that the entire Potala square and the rest of the Tibetan section of Lhasa city were effectively sealed by the police following Tsweang Norbu’s self-immolation. Since the Chinese government had already banned the entry of foreigners into Tibet due to the Winter Olympics and the Paralympic Winter Games, there was no foreign tourist present there who could have witnessed or filmed the incident. It was only about a fortnight later the news of Norbu’s death was known to the outer world.
For those who have been closely following the Tibetan situation before and after the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics-2008, these two incidents reflect how the Chinese rulers of Tibet have left no scope for public expression of anger and opposition of Tibetan people against the Chinese rule in today’s Tibet. “This incident has proven once again that the grip of China’s security system over Tibet and the Tibetan people has reached such levels of ‘perfection’ that it has practically become impossible for ordinary Tibetan citizens in today’s Tibet even to express one’s anger or frustration against the Chnese rule”, says Lobsang Wangyal, a senior Tibetan journalist and former Chief Editor of TibetSun.
Since 2009 in most of the known 160 cases of self-immolations inside Tibet, the incidents ended up in the victim’s death. Almost all of them were youths, monks and nuns. According to Tibetan exile sources,
the real number of self-immolations is much higher because many incidents of unsuccessful or semi-successful self-immolations still remain unknown to the outer world because of the strong Chinese
control overflow of information between Tibet and the rest of the world. One example is a 26-year-old Tibetan man Shurmo who had set himself on fire and died in September 2015 at the town bus stop of
his hometown Nagchu in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). But the news of this incident and his death could be confirmed only five and a half years later, in January 2021. It was only then that traditional last Buddhist prayers and rites were organized by his relatives and admirers living in exile in India.
It is interesting to note that the latest case of self-immolation by Taphun has happened in the Kham province of Tibet, which, according to Beijing, is not ‘Tibet’ as it was assimilated into the Chinese Sichuan province after China occupied Tibet in 1951 and reorganized its geography in 1962. The sudden spurt in self-immolations started in 2009 after China had concluded the 2008-Olympics and the security
system of the Chinese Communist Party had started revising its strategy to contain Tibetan public resistance against their Chinese masters. At the time of pitching for the 2008-Olympics by China, there was an international uproar against the dismal Chinese human rights record within China and its colonies like Tibet, Xinjiang and South Mongolia. To assuage this anger among the human rights supporters, the IOC and certain western governments supporting China in its Olympic bid had assured that hosting such a huge international sports event would help and encourage the Chinese government to improve the human rights conditions in China.
Francois Carrard, the Executive Director of IOC, had strongly supported China’s pitching and had practically condemned the international champions of human rights when he said in July 2001, “Some people say, because of serious human rights issues, ‘We close the door and say no’? The other way is to bet on openness. Bet on the fact that in the coming seven years, openness, progress and development in many areas (of China) will be such that the situation will be improved.”
But in sharp contrast to what IOC had hoped, the Tibetan people stood up against ever-increasing controls and inhuman treatment by their Chinese masters. Between March 2008 and the beginning of the Olympics in August same year, Tibet witnessed more than 125 massive public protests at more than 50 places across TAR and those areas of original Tibet which were usurped into adjoining Chinese provinces like Sichuan, Yunnan, Gansu and Qinghai. Throwing all its assurances to the IOC and the world community to the wind, China has only deepened its security grip and digital surveillance system over Tibet and Xinjiang further. So much so that with the help of millions of CCTV cameras and mobile phone tracers, supported by Artificial Intelligence tools, the PSB control rooms can predict any public gathering much in advance. The Chinese agents can physically overrun the trouble spot before someone can do anything which is unpalatable or unacceptable to the Chinese masters.
That should explain why more than 160 Tibetan youths, monks and nuns had to take to a ‘single-wolf’ action like self-immolation to express the ever-growing anger in the heart of ordinary Tibetans against their colonial masters. On the one hand, this spate of self-immolations reflects the ever-growing anger of ordinary Tibetans against their Chinese colonial master. But on the hand, a complete silence among world governments reflects their indifference.