Fuel for a Spark

This week concludes both the Chinese New Year and Tibetan New Year celebrations of Losar. As many New Year celebrations are joyous, for Tibetans they haven’t always been.

Tsering Woeser, author of Tibet on Fire

Tsering Woeser, author of Tibet on Fire

It’s during this festival in 2009 that Tsering Woeser begins her book Tibet on Fire. Through vigorous research, Woeser carefully pieces together a perplexing puzzle that is Tibetan self-immolation, a phenomena compelling nearly 150 people to this act. American journalist, foreign press and Chinese citizens are asking the same question, “why would they want to set themselves on fire?” This prominent inquiry shows the mass confusion and general misunderstanding of Tibetan protest.

Number of self-immolations in Tibetan regions (Voice of America)

Number of self-immolations in Tibetan regions (Voice of America)

This is where Woeser commences her findings. Why are Tibetans self-immolating? In quick fashion she blends past and present oppressive surges by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) through a guise described as “liberating…and emancipating the serfs.”

Self-immolation as defined in Chinese

Self-immolation as defined in Chinese

“It seems we need a new term…that might begin to live up to these acts of sacrifice.”

–Tsering Woeser, Tibet on Fire


Few are unaffected. Even fewer are willing to act with extreme protestation. Woeser is careful to acknowledge the pawo or heroes who have undertaken the selfless act for the safety of those who may be connected or associated. Often times, relatives, friends and neighbors are punished.

Thus far, the international community has restricted its voice on the topic perpetuating both the CCP from admitting the frequency of incidents as they increase by frustrated Tibetans.


Author Tsering Woeser with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

Author Tsering Woeser with Chinese artist Ai Weiwei

“Tibet is the most serious test for today’s China and for the international community’s standard of human rights and justice. There is no dodging this test, and there is no getting around it. And thus far, everyone should be disgraced and shamed at the result,”

–Ai Weiwei

Tibetans when entering Lhasa, the region’s capital, are scanned, IDs photocopied and often questioned. She personally attests to the paradox of Tibetans trying to enter Lhasa with great difficulty and bureaucracy; while Han Chinese need only to show one basic form of identification.

Woeser elucidates the true essence of self-immolation. It’s not to be considered suicide, although it is an act against oneself. It’s a horrendous act that demands unfathomed strength and devotion to subject every cell in the body to burning destruction.


How did we get here?

In 2010, Chinese state-sponsored television network, CCTV, awarded Lhasa, “city with the happiest people.”



As Woeser points out, since February 27, 2009 thru July 9, 2015 there have been 146 confirmed self-immolations based on publically available information. She demands that these stats signal a wakeup call that Tibetans must resist the CCP. As a result of these so-called ‘crimes’, Tibetans are now nearly second-class citizens in their own land, almost enemies.


Documented attempted or successful self-immolations in Tibetan regions from 2009 to 2014. Tibetan Provinces labeled by Tibetan names: Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is called U-Tsang, Qinghai Province is named Amdo, and Sichuan Province is Kham, (Tibet Truth)

Documented attempted or successful self-immolations in Tibetan regions from 2009 to 2014. Tibetan Provinces labeled by Tibetan names: Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is called U-Tsang, Qinghai Province is named Amdo, and Sichuan Province is Kham, (Tibet Truth)


How is it that Tibetans go from martyred outrage one year to happiest the next?

Chinese oppression of Tibetans can be pinpointed to 1934 during the Long March. The Red Army trudged through a territory called Ngawa within Sichuan Province (四川省), Tibetans call this region Kham. They plundered Tibetan homes and monasteries, killed monks, desecrated Kirti Monastery. It was at this point that persecution of Tibetans manifested itself in five specific areas. Today, in Ngawa, 39 people have self-immolated in the same spot. A place now recognized as “Heroes Lane.”

5 Areas Persecution


The Chinese Cultural Revolution began in 1966, but Tibetans mark the event much earlier around 1958. In fact, to most Tibetans, the Cultural Revolutions is simply referred to as ‘1958’. A year later, the 14th Dalai Lama would flee to India to live in exile.


Dalai Lama escaping to exile, 1959.

Dalai Lama escaping to exile, 1959.

A turning point came in 2008. Months before the Olympics riots broke out throughout Tibet. The Chinese government blamed the Dalai Lama for masterminding the uprising. A year later on February 27, 2009, Chinese authorities cancelled the Great Prayer Festival—Monlam, commemorating the victims of the protest crackdowns.


“Wherever there is opposition, there is resistance.”

–Mao Zedong


At first, Tibetans were observing Tibetan Uprising Day on March 10 until unrest escalated. By March 14 there was rioting, looting, arson, and even killing. Since then March has always been a politically charged month, where self-immolation proliferates.




Self-immolation is not suicide

Woeser constantly refuses the definition of self-immolation as suicide. It is an act against the self, horrendous, but not suicide. It’s an extreme period of suffering in which every cell burns. Much more, self-immolation is sacrifice for a greater cause. The act puts pressure on everyone to change. As Woeser says in her book, “self-immolators are bodhisattvas (enlightened beings) sacrificing the self for others, phoenixes reincarnated from the flames of death.”

China considers self-immolation a crime. They are willing to go as far as to deem it a terrorist act. The CCP views self-immolation as a threat to “public security and social order…with [malicious intent] to split the country.” Those who commit self-immolation are then criminals. Additionally, they blame the Dalai Lama for organizing and planning separatist cliques. They have created campaigns against self-immolation collectively arresting relatives, friends, and neighbors to blockade all information on instances of self-immolation.

“There is no greater expression of their desperate opposition to the Chinese government than by resorting to the most powerful method of a nonviolent movement, which is by refraining from causing any harm to the Chinese people and appealing to the Chinese government, than by setting themselves on fire.”

— Kirti Rinpoche , chief abbot of Kirti Monastery speaking before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US House of Representatives


Media statements from the CCP often calumniates self-immolators as having “mental illnesses, thieves, alcohol abusers, prone to fighting and gambling, engage with prostitutes, have STDs, are homosexuals, constant strife with significant other, drop out of school, physically handicapped or introverts.”

However, protesters do not fear punishment. They only fear no answer, fear their protests remain silenced.

As China becomes more powerful gleaning public support seems little chance for true unity between Tibet and China.


Why hasn’t the international community been more outspoken?

Woeser and her husband have 49 documented final statements—letters or verbal declarations for his or her act, but the Chinese government goes to great lengths to confiscate or harass sympathizers aiding final statement recovery or publishing. At the same time, the CCP has had terrific success at limiting international attention on acts of protest. Time magazine reported stories on self-immolation were the most underreported topic in 2011. That goes for each consecutive year until 2015. How many self-immolation stories will be denied publication in 2016?

Final statement themes inspiring self-immolation (TIbet on Fire)

Final statement themes inspiring self-immolation (TIbet on Fire)


Furthermore, international media may refuse publication of final statements for lack of information, sources or authentication. Therefore, the international community is reluctant to make a substantive public response.


“I never imagined Tibetans would sacrifice their bodies and lives to these flames,”

–Tsering Woser


All too often, Woeser has shamefully received the same question over the years.

Doesn’t self-immolation seem useless? This question directly shows how misunderstood international communities are on the subject of self-immolation.

Woeser counters, “self-immolators seek dignity for our people.” Tibetan assistance from outside forces looks scarce. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend the 146 self-immolations when the very act is diagnosed as ‘useless’.


Goals self-immolators hope to accomplish by his or her act (Tibet on Fire)

Goals self-immolators hope to accomplish by his or her act (Tibet on Fire)


The Chinese have a saying, “forget the pain once the wound is healed,” unfortunately this represents the grave misconception of Tibet. For the Han Chinese, Tibet is free and living in happy autonomous prosperity, but Tibetans are suffering, alone. Tibetan wounds have not healed, but bleed profusely.


Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin


For most of his life, Raphael Lemkin fought to use law that would bind humanity to prevent crimes. He believed crimes shouldn’t be punished by victims, but by the national law. Over many years, decades even, he sought to define this massacre of people.

He created a new word: genocide.

Even Woeser expresses, “we need a new term to describe these protests in Tibet—a term that might begin to live up to these acts of sacrifice.”

Today, Tibetan ethnicity is not only persecuted through systematic legislation, but also discriminated against religiously, culturally and physically oppressed.

“Those who kept silent yesterday will remain silent tomorrow.”

–Elie Wiesel


Would the international community be more willing to investigate this persecution if defined by another word other than ‘self’?

The root reasons of Tibetan suppression run deep through the fertile soils of Chinese history. Emancipating Tibet will not come overnight, but it also will not be coming as quickly as Woeser desires. China has too much to lose and control most if not all the resources to prevent such a loss. Tsering Woeser’s goal is to inform the public of the travesty that is plaguing her nation by another which once fought imperialism only to become that very monster.

Cover Art by Ai Wei Wei with swirling flames against a list of the names of self-immolators.

Cover Art by Ai Wei Wei with swirling flames against a list of the names of self-immolators.