Hu at BRIC summit unlikely to pacify Tibetan protesters

A bit of gasoline and a matchstick is all it takes to symbolise the end of hope. And in recent months, a rash of Tibetan monks and nuns within China – and at least one Tibetan in exile in New Delhi on Monday – have given expression to the end of hope in incendiary fashion by setting themselves on fire.

In recent months, some 30 people have died in self-immolation protests against Chinese repression in Tibet. Jamphel Yeshi, the 27-year-old who escaped from Tibet in 2006 and lives in New Delhi, is in critical condition after he set himself on fire in New Delhi; he was protesting the visit beginning later today of Chinese President Hu Jintao, to attend the BRIC summit.

More protests by the Tibetan exile community are under way in New Delhi. Hu Jintao is a natural target for the Tibetan community because it was he who in 1989, as the Communist Party’s head in Tibet, oversaw the most brutal crackdown on a peaceful uprising against Chinese rule.

The latest wave of self-immolation protests, which in some ways violate the Tibetan Buddhist precepts about the preservation of life, symbolises the mounting frustrations of the Tibetan community (both resident in China and in exile) over the iron-fisted Chinese rule in Tibet. The funerals of these self-immolation victims have in recent times become the platforms for further protests.

Chinese authorities have over the decades sunk billions of dollars into “developing” Tibet and other Tibetan-occupied areas in China, but the one thing that all this money hasn’t been able to buy them is the hearts and minds – and the loyalty – of the Tibetan people.

Tibetan exiles try to douse the flames from their comrade, Jamphel Yeshi, after he set himself on fire during a protest against the upcoming visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to India in New Delhi on Monday. Reuters

As the famed Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser observed in a recent commentary in Foreign Policy, “the authorities always say that they ‘liberated’ Tibet, bringing ‘happiness’ to 6 million Tibetans. But why, so many years after the 1959 liberation, are the serfs revolting against their liberators?”

In the official Chinese narrative, there’s only one reason to account for this:  “incitement” by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhist, who fled Tibet for India in 1959 but who retains a strong spiritual hold over the Tibetan population despite the most vile propaganda that is aimed at portraying the Nobel Peace laureate as a secessionist.

Just last week, the official Communist Party media megaphone in Tibet plumbed new depths of debasement when it likened the Dalai Lama to “cruel Nazis” and claimed that his actions – such as they are – were “similar to the Holocaust committed by Hitler on the Jews.”

Chinese authorities have thus far pointedly refused to see the Tibetan peaceful uprising as anything more than a secessionist movement and a law and order problem, which merited the most brutal crackdown. Before the Dalai Lama gave up his political role as the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, he had repeatedly made clear that he only saw a future for Tibet within China; all he sought was a measure of autonomy and a preservation of the Tibetan way of life. Yet, the Chinese authorities refused to engage him, effectively sidelining him from the political process.

But the vacuum created by the Dalai Lama’s exit from the political stage is at risk of being filled in by younger radicalised elements of the Tibetan movement (both in exile and at home) who have lost all hope. It is that collective frustration that is manifesting itself in the wave of self-immolations. These days, Han Chinese security troops patrolling Tibetan areas have not just heavy-duty arms and ammunition, they also carry fire extinguishers.

Yet, in a larger sense, the authorities don’t have a fire extinguisher to put out the raging fire in Tibet. They are clueless about ways to secure the Tibetan community’s loyalty, and have thus far responded only with the iron-fisted (but ham-handed) approach..

China’s infirm hold on Tibet has security implications for India, where a large Tibetan community in exile lives. It was the arrival of the Dalai Lama in India in 1959 that fed Chinese angst about India’s intentions in volatile Tibet – and contributed to a gradual downward spiral in relations. Jawaharlal Nehru’s naivete, subsequently supplanted by ill-advised bravado, accentuated it, and eventually led to the 1962 war, which India comprehensively lost.

Today, despite the sustained uprising, Chinese authorities are in far greater control over Tibet, and in any case there is far less risk of an outright war. Yet the wave of self-immolations, which have now spread to Indian shores, feeds Chinese frustration and paranoia, which can manifest itself in unpredictable ways. All this will require heightened vigilance from the Indian side.