Since February 2009 a wave of self-immolation protests has started in Tibet. It currently counts more than 125 victims. Very rarely do we hear about these incidents on the news. This is partly because the Chinese regime does everything to silence Tibetan grievances and keep any form of opposition to the Chinese Communist Party within its own border. Whereas Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Tunisia in 2011 is said to have started the Arab Spring there has been no such thing as a Tibetan Spring. Therefore, the chances that self-immolations will  continue without there being any considerable political change in the region are more than likely.

Yet, why is Tibet burning?

Tibet has been occupied by China in 1950. Even though there has been a dispute over the full scale of Tibet’s autonomy before the invasion the term ‘occupation’ seems more than appropriate considering that Tibetans in Tibet are nowadays denied most of their culture. One can argue about state borders and sovereignty before 1950 but assimilationist policies of the Chinese government in Tibetan regions today are not something to argue about, they are facts. Whether these are driven by benign intentions or not is more or less irrelevant. What is relevant for Tibetans who live in the Tibetan Autonomous Region or in other Tibetan areas within China is the fact that it seems impossible for future generations to study most school subjects in Tibetan, to freely practice their religion and to raise their voices in politics if it is not in line with Chinese Communist principles.

Ever since Tibet’s annexation to the People’s Republic of China there have been various limitations on the Tibetan way of life and like other parts of China Tibet has suffered most severely from Mao’s Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976. However, the recent trend towards self-immolation amongst many people possibly stems from more recent developments including the introduction of many more hardline policies in Tibet since the 90s. The developments of the last 20 years have shown how China, an atheist state, is trying to control a Buddhist nation.

His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama has traditionally been the political and religious leader for most Tibetans and has continued to act as such in exile in India from 1959 onwards. Although he has voluntarily given up his political power in 2011 and handed it over to an elected Prime Minister of the Tibetan government, even in exile it is fair to say that he still remains a unifying symbol for both political and religious aspirations amongst Tibetans all over the world. Yet, since 1994 the Dalai Lama’s picture and any form of support towards him has been made illegal in Tibet. Any form of disobedience towards anti-Dalai Lama policies has led to arrests and very often torture in prisons.

Religious practice is tightly controlled and amongst the most significant examples is the introduction of Patriotic Education classes in monasteries in the 90s which have been intensified after mostly peaceful protests in Tibet in 2008, the year China hosted the Olympics. These classes are designed to teach Tibetan monks and nuns socialist principles and paradoxically try to mingle atheist concepts into Buddhist institutions which still lie at the core of Tibetan nationhood and culture. China has also implemented so-called ‘reincarnation laws’ which give the government the power to select future Buddhist reincarnations. This also means that the decision about the Dalai Lama’s successor will be left to a handful of Chinese Party members in dry-cleaned suits who neither speak Tibetan nor have any clue about Buddhist traditions (Party members are not allowed to follow a religion in the first place).

Apart from religious grievances Tibetans fear that their language is at stake since most of the Tibetan everyday life is now dominated by Mandarin. Inside Tibet the Tibetan language has been abandoned from secondary school onwards. Street signs, bus timetables and the like are all written in Mandarin and if a letter which is supposed to be sent within Tibet is addressed in Tibetan it won’t ever reach its destination. Political protest of any kind is being suppressed and it is impossible for Tibetans to raise their voices and criticise the Communist Party. The mass protests of 2008 have led to the most severe security measures at the hands of Chinese officials, and the above mentioned examples only give a slight impression as to how limited Tibetans are nowadays in practicing their culture.

The fact that self-immolations in Tibet have started particularly from 2009 onwards is therefore no surprise. Any other form of opposition is being violently cracked down and very often ends in human rights abuses on Tibetan protesters. Despite the fact that Tibetans are not allowed to follow the Dalai Lama’s lead, a vast majority still does. An important part of his leading role has always been the promotion of non-violence. Even though there are exceptions here and there, the overwhelming majority of Tibetan resistance has remained peaceful up until today. It is probably for this reason that we do not find such things as terrorist attacks as a result of political grievances on the roof of the world. What we find is people setting themselves on fire. And even though this can be interpreted as violence towards oneself it is rather evident that no one else is supposed to get hurt. This form of self-sacrifice is not common in Buddhist tradition but it is very powerful and possibly the only option for Tibetans in Tibet to publicly demand the two things that possibly every single Tibetan wants: the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet and political freedom!

Whether this freedom is supposed to be in the guise of genuine autonomy or independence is a different question. For now let us just realise that over a hundred people in Tibet have decided to burn themselves to death for the higher good of their nation and the preservation of their culture. Self-immolation is a form of protest that ideally denies the occupier control over the protester’s body. That’s why part of Patriotic Education in monasteries today is to teach monks how to handle fire extinguishers.

The assimilationist policies the Chinese regime imposes on Tibetan areas have led to a situation which the current Dalai Lama calls ‘cultural genocide’.