Counting the latest, a middle-aged Tibetan farmer, there have now been 30 “Free Tibet” self-immolations since February 27th, according to reports. Desperation always reeks of tragedy, but this is unnecessarily tragic and almost assuredly counter-productive.
Self-immolations need to stop. The international “Free Tibet” community needs to take a stronger stance against these protests, rather than commiserating with the suicidal.
Unfortunately, the entire Free Tibet movement has evolved into something of a cookie-cutter cause. People look at this like Disney’s Pocahantas– some bucolic fantasy of an always-free and pure Tibet, with beautiful monks in their colorful garb dancing around in Himalayan prairies– everybody smiling and happy, until the bad guys showed up.
The Dalai Lama is like an international Winnie the Pooh, just peaceful and happy. Everybody loves him. And how could you not? I mean, who would ever want to fuck with Winnie the Pooh?
The truth is just a lot murkier than all this. Let’s be frank about a couple of things:
1. These self-immolating Tibetan Buddhists are religious zealots.
Most people who kill themselves in the name of religion get a pretty bad wrap, but Tibetan Buddhists get a lot of leniency on this one.
Setting aside the obvious comparison, let’s imagine for a second that these were fundamentalist Christians in the US. Imagine if a large enough number of these Christians started calling for more autonomy and the right to create a completely Christian state within the US– with the power to basically evict any non-Christian and eviscerate the Constitution in favor of the Bible (Wait, what? That’s really happening?!). OK, granted that idea probably gives a lot of Americans a little tingly feeling downstairs. But for most reasonable people, this is just patently absurd.
But in the US, Christians are the majority. Tibetan Buddhists are not in China. In fact, most Chinese are passively spiritual. Living a life centered around religion is literally a foreign concept in China. But back to the US…
Imagine for a second that adherents to a certain branch of Christianity started burning themselves alive in the streets. What would the government reaction be? I’d bet on Waco II before a new awakening.
2. China is not going to “free” Tibet.
The idea of China freeing Tibet is like the US giving New Mexico, Arizona, southern California, and half of Texas back to Mexico– it’s just not going to happen. Too many vested interests, for too long.
I forget where I first read that comparison, but it’s completely on point. For better or worse, Tibet is stuck in a Beijing’s headlock for the foreseeable future.
(I’m reminded of Rambo IV where John asks the missionary, “You bringin’ any weapons?” Missionary responds, “Of course not!” To which John snorts, “Then you’re not changing anything.” It’s hard to win wars on moral righteousness these days.)
3. A free Tibet is not necessarily a better place.
This is the most contentious point, certainly. While most pro-Tibet/anti-China advocates would like to believe that Tibet would flourish without Beijing, the reality is much more frightening.
First off, to consider an entirely free Tibet– let’s say, hypothetically, China grows tired of the bad press and allows the province to secede– one would have to consider the ramifications. They’d be wise to ask Taiwan about what it’s like trying to navigate in international politics when you have Beijing on your ass. No investment, trade blockades, political stalemates, etc.
OK, so let’s not go that far. Best-case scenario, let’s say Beijing grants Tibet more autonomy politically. The Dalai Lama returns. Tibetan culture is revived. Tibetans are allowed to exercise religion in any way they so choose.
Well, that sounds great. But there are still some obstacles to overcome. What happens to the Han– mostly lower- and middle-class entrepreneurs who moved to Tibet in hopes of finding their own prosperity? How could the new Tibetan leadership work towards prosperity for everyone– if, assumingly, they would be against closer ties with inner China and more Han in Tibet?
And then there’s the biggest obstacles of all: getting the Chinese military out of Tibet. New Tibetan leadership would need to assure China that they could protect a massive land border with India (a must for Beijing) and its central Asian neighbors.
The only thing I know for sure is that the absolute worst way to go about getting the Chinese military out is to burn yourself in the street. All that’s going to lead to is more patrols on every corner, more conflict, and less willingness from Beijing to actually negotiate.