May 24, 2013
On Fire I Will Burn
Posted on Jan 15, 2013
By Bhuchung D. Sonam
For Tibetans, language is the heart of their culture and identity. Like water, it sustains Tibet as a country and Tibetans as a people; like air, it supplies Tibet’s religion, music, literature and history. Banning the Tibetan language is meant to finally destroy the region’s culture and identity.
A leaked official Chinese document issued in May 2011 focuses on the need to “strengthen education in dialectical materialism and historical materialism in classes on ideological and political theories.” In language resembling that of the Cold War era, the document further asks cadres to “deepen the development of resources for political ideological education in various classes. …” Hence, Beijing’s fundamental education policy in Tibet has been to win over the loyalty of generations of Tibetans through mandatory education in Chinese, while deliberately sidelining the Tibetan language. This is highlighted in a recent appeal letter to China’s new leader, Communist Party Secretary General Xi Jinping, by members of the international Tibetan studies community. They wrote: “We know the value of Tibet’s civilization and we regret that the Tibetan language, which is its fundamental support, is seemingly marginalized and devalued. …”
As a child growing up in a nomadic community, Kyi experienced the resettlement of her nomadic family firsthand; as a student, she discovered that her language would no longer be taught in school. Deprived of everything that she knew—and feeling that there were no other avenues to express her dissent—Kyi chose the last resort. Two months before she set herself on fire, Kyi told a relative that “We should do something—life is meaningless if we don’t do something for Tibet.”
And then on May 27, 2012, two young men set themselves on fire in front of Jokhang. This holiest temple in Tibet, located in the heart of the city of Lhasa, is today filled with police and paramilitary forces. Dorjee Tseten, 19, was a chef in a small restaurant called Nyima Ling and his friend Dhargye, 24, was a cashier at the same eatery. As a knee-jerk reaction, Beijing unleashed more paramilitary forces into the city and hundreds of eastern Tibetans who had made their homes in Lhasa were arbitrarily expelled.
The Han natives flooding the city bring with them their alien habits and language. Woeser, a Tibetan author based in Beijing, writes that the danger for Tibet may not be China’s military threat, but rather the cultural invasion. “Because the imperialist cultural invasion in Tibet can be observed in every little detail,” she writes, “the impact and influence of these changes leave you with no option but to give up or adapt. The eventual consequence is likely to be that there is no longer a ‘you’ left. … ‘You’ will vanish in the end.”
The fundamental challenge for China is not to identify and foil who might be the next self-immolator in which town, village or nomadic tent, but to recognize that many on the plateau are against Beijing’s rule over Tibet, and that every Tibetan could potentially set him or herself on fire. What Beijing can do, meanwhile, is to accept that Tibet is not the “happiest land” and this is the result of six decades of the government’s flawed policies. A lasting solution can be found only by understanding messages of self-immolators and addressing their basic aspirations.
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