A former Buddhist monk in Tibet has reportedly died from his burns after setting himself on fire earlier this month.
The announcement came Friday from a Tibetan rights group based in India.
The Chinese government hasn’t confirmed the news.
Activists say the man who died last week was the latest of at least 12 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire this year to protest China’s treatment of Tibet.
Anchor Marco Werman talks to Charlene Makley, a professor of anthropology specializing on Tibet at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World, a coproduction of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. A former Buddhist monk in Tibet has reportedly died from his burns after setting himself on fire earlier this month. The announcement came today from a Tibetan rights group based in India. The Chinese government hasn’t confirmed the news. Activists say the man who died this week was the latest of at least 12 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire this year to protest China’s treatment of Tibet. Charlene Makley is a professor of anthropology at Reed College in Oregon. She’s traveled many times to Tibet. Professor Makley, how unusual is this way of self-immolation by Tibetans?
Charlene Makley: It is fairly unusual. I’ve been working in these regions for about 20 years now. I was there for field work in 2007-2008 during China’s vaunted Olympic year, but I saw then widespread protests that happened at that time, which brought a pretty big military crackdown. But during that time, even during those widespread protests we didn’t see anything like what’s happening now, three years later.
Werman: And what is the significance of the protests or who died, self emulating into that?
Makley: There’s lot of debates, right? There’s a moral debate about what this is. Is this altruistic heroic sacrifice or is this selfish fanatical extremists suicide? And the blogs are full of arguments about what this is and how do we think about it. But we do need to think about it in a broader context. All of the immolations recently have been specifically Tibetan Buddhists, young protestors who are doing this, so that has to be considered.
Werman: Well, that is a great question, why now? I mean it is such a brutal form of protests. Why this trend of Tibetan monks and nuns resorting to self-immolation? What does that desperation suggest to you?
Makley: It suggests an escalation. There’s been sort of a vicious spiral of escalating kind of relations here where there’s been a hard military style crackdown, which calls for further demonstrations, which calls for harder crackdowns. So what we’re seeing is not I think this sort of irrational shift from previous kinds of protests from Tibetans, but it’s growing out of an escalation and a sense of sheer despair I think. People feel like this is in that region especially, the last resort form of communications they have to the state.
Werman: How has the Chinese government responded and if these immolations continue what can we expect the Chinese central government to do?
Makley: The response has been very formulaic. So we’re seeing you know, beefing up of security infrastructure, new funding for SWAT teams that treat this as riots or terrorism. The pattern is to divert attention from what are really widespread grievances among Tibetans about feeling more and more marginalized in these regions. And to focus then in the media on trying to find the masterminds, like the small group, right, who are behind it. So in the prefectures where the immolations are happening the state media is like blaming a gang of monks who are using and inciting naive youth. So the other side of the coin is that central leaders are sending massive funds and subsidies to Tibetan regions, you know, giving tax breaks and incentives to rural Tibetans to build comfortable homes. I even saw on TV in 2008 a show that showed Tibetan Nomads being given free TVs.
Werman: Basically, to get them to top complaining, stop the grievances.
Makley: Right, right, you know, so you have the irony of sort of simultaneous or soft generous state responses, and then this iron fist. And this is happening simultaneously.
Werman: Is there any chance that this dramatic form of protest, I mean committing suicide essentially, will refocus the world on the issue of Tibetan China and that China might acquiesce a little bit?
Makley: There’s debate about this, right? I mean some might claim that the Arab Spring context will happen in China, but I think it’s a very different context. Some people suggest that state leaders are just more kind of embarrassed by this, but they won’t really take any major steps to change. I think it has refocused attention among people outside of China. But the big thing about what’s happening in China is the information blackout. That Chinese citizens really don’t know what’s going out west, and Chinese leaders themselves, it’s hard to say whether central leaders even really get accurate accounts of what’s going on in Tibetan regions.
Werman: Charlene Makely, professor of anthropology at Reed College. Thank you very much.
Makley: Thank you.
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