The Fire in the Monastery

PRAGUE – The grim spectacle of young monks, nuns, and lay people setting themselves on fire to protest conditions in their homeland is a stark reminder of the gloom and despair that now prevails on the Tibetan Plateau. These acts of self-immolation – at least 36 since March 2011 – have been staged to protest the increasingly heavy controls that China’s government in Beijing has imposed on Buddhist religious practices. At the end of May, a self-immolation occurred for the first time, in Lhasa, the capital, which may be a powerful portent of new turmoil in Tibet.

The self-immolations are a stark rebuke to the Chinese government’s claims that the lives of many in Tibet have been improving. These singular acts of desperation, irrespective of their motives, should be viewed in the wider context of ongoing religious and political problems in Tibet. Current official Chinese policies threaten the continuing existence of the Tibetan language, culture, religion, heritage, and environment.

Simmering tensions have been fueled largely by the lengthy “re-education” campaigns imposed on the Tibetans, who are forced to renounce publicly their spiritual leader and profess patriotism and loyalty to China. The escalating situation in the Aba/Ngaba region, a heavily Tibetan area in Sichuan province where tensions have led to the imposition of unprecedented security measures, is particularly worrisome.

Aba has long had one of the densest concentrations of Buddhist monks and monasteries anywhere in the world. The security crackdown to stem protests there, and the virtual sealing off of the Kirti Monastery in Ngaba, where the first of the current wave of self-immolations occurred, appears merely to have spread protest farther afield. Article 36 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China guarantees all citizens the right to freedom of religion; therefore, religious freedom in Tibet should be respected.