By John E. Isom
Board of Directors, Tibet Justice Center
15 December 2012
This past Monday was Human Rights Day, a day that honors the adoption and proclamation, on 10 December 1948, of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the first global enunciation of human rights and still an enduring statement of hope for basic human rights for all the world’s people.
While many around the world celebrated the self-evident truths of the UN’s Declaration, Tibetans around the world were observing a grim milestone: just days earlier, Pawo Kunchok Phelgye, a 24-year old monk from eastern Tibet, became the 100th Tibetan, inside Tibet and in exile, to set himself on fire, in continued protest of China’s half-century of occupation and increased repression.
The rising wave of self-immolations across Tibet – in November alone, 28 Tibetans self-immolated – embodies a cry for the very freedoms enshrined in the historic UN Declaration: freedom of thought, conscience and expression; freedom to assemble, practice one’s religion, and voice dissent; freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention, or exile. And, underlying all these, the freedom for a people to determine how they shall be governed, and by whom. Tibetans continue to rise up against their occupier, and have come to choose self-immolation as their path to liberation from the political occupation that denies them these rights.
Who are Tibet’s self-immolators? They are men and women, teenagers, parents and grandparents, monks, nuns and laypersons. The oldest was 64, and close to two-thirds were under 25 years old, suggesting a new generation of action and increased resistance. Many were nomads, whom Chinese officials continue to remove, forcibly and permanently, from Tibet’s vast grasslands and their traditional livelihood of livestock rearing and herding – ranching, in a word.
Still, the use of self-immolation as a weapon to challenge tyranny raises many questions: Instead of suicide, why not live to fight against China’s illegal and immoral occupation? More bluntly, after more than one hundred self-immolations, has anything changed? Shouldn’t they try something different? Why suicide?
That last question is emotionally instinctive: suicide is an unimaginable grief, a tragic failure of hope: someone has given up. So, it will seem paradoxical, but suicide by self-immolation has come to mean just the opposite for these individuals.
Nearly all of the Tibetan self-immolators who have left a final statement have declared that they hold out two great hopes: freedom from China's occupation, and the return of the Dalai Lama to his Tibetan homeland. Seventeen year-old Pamo Ani Sangey Dolma, who self-immolated on November 25, included a photo of herself with the words “Tibet: An Independent Nation” written on her hand. In turn, 27-year old Jamphel Yeshi, who self-immolated in Delhi this past March, included these words in a lengthy final letter:
“Long Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is the shining example of world peace. We must strive to ensure return of His Holiness to Tibet…. Freedom is the basis of happiness for all living beings…. So, don’t be disheartened.”
Don't be disheartened. Jamphel’s words are not the words of one who has given up hope. Rather, his words embody hope, and the willful conviction of choosing one's own fate and future: "I will choose death rather than live under your tyranny."
Tibetan self-immolations have thus become a symbolic and persistent light shining on the need for political self-determination: for the right of the Tibetan people to determine how they shall be governed, and by whom. It is worth noting that some Tibetans in exile have very recently taken up the words of American revolutionary patriot Patrick Henry: “Give me liberty, or give me death!”
We might now better understand why more than one hundred Tibetans, and counting, are so willing to choose self-immolation in defense of their inalienable right to secure the blessings of life, liberty, and their own fate and future through political self-determination. As paradoxical as it might seem, there is moral authority in the actions of those who have chosen self-immolation because there is meaning, Tibetan meaning, in their actions.
As more of these brave Buddhists seek both the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and liberation for their countrymen and -women from their political suffering, self-immolation will persist because it is a continued call for self-determination: the fundamental human right to determine how Tibetans shall be governed, and by whom, even if it means choosing to die than to live under China’s tyranny.
All of which makes the Tibetan cause a just cause, one that is at the heart of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – and thus, a just cause for all humanity.