The death of Tsewang Norbu, a 25-yer-old Tibetan pop singer, due to burns suffered in self-immolation in front of the Potala Palace in Lhasa yet again highlights how China’s hold over Tibet remains unstable over six decades after the annexation.
The news of Norbu’s self-immolation and subsequent death has been reported by the journal Tibetan Review as well as Radio Free Asia. He was reported to have set himself aflame on February 25 after shouting slogans in front of the Potala Palace, which was home to the Dalai Lamas between 1649 until 1959, when the current one, the 14th Dalai Lama had to flee into exile in India.
Norbu’s self-immolation came just days before March 10, the 63rd anniversary of what the Tibetans call the Tibetan National Uprising Day.
As the world grapples with Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and China looks on in tacit support of the action, the latest self-immolation, 158th since 2009, underscores that subjugated societies and cultures never really settle down.
The number 158 may not seem big but when the sheer desperation and courage of this individual act is considered the average of about 13 Tibetans taking their lives or attempting to do so in this fashion every year since 2009 makes a much greater impact beyond its size.
Over the years the Dalai Lama has had to treat the spate of self-immolations rather delicately. He has often called it a “very, very delicate political issue”.
This writer, who is an authorized biographer of the Dalai Lama, had asked him as early as in 2010 in the immediate aftermath of some self-immolations about what his position was. He acknowledged that it was a “very difficult balancing act” for him because saying something positive about them would prompt China to blame him, while saying something negative about them the family members of those who died would be upset.
“They sacrificed their life. It is not easy. I do not want to create an impression that this is wrong,” he had said even while recognizing that Buddhism does not condone violence in any form including to oneself.
Buddhist monks have some history of self-immolation going back to 1963 when on June 11 that year Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk burned himself to death in Saigon. He was protesting against the government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. While a stunning picture of that self-immolation published across the world seriously undermined Diem’s standing, the Tibetan self-immolations have not managed to force the international community to act.
China predictably blames the Dalai Lama for these self-immolations, an assertion that the latter dismisses. He has been known to point out the oppressive and repressive controls imposed by Beijing over Tibetans over the last six decades.
As the world watches in horror a giant country, namely Russia, brutalizing a much smaller one, namely Ukraine, and rushes to support it, it has long forgotten the plight of a similar annexation by China of Tibet starting in 1950.
Over six decades later what Tibetans critically call “Sinicization” of their glorious ancient culture seems complete as China has refashioned the Tibetan society to make it look Han Chinese in its cultural underpinnings. Of course, there are voices within Lhasa and elsewhere which seem to acknowledge the progress made by Tibet under the Chinese rule. However, it has come at the cost of their own culture and language.