An image of self-immolator Dorjee Tsering, displayed at a Tibetan rally in New York City; right, Dorjee’s parents, Nyima Yangzom and Thupten Tashi (seated), in Asansol, India
An image of self-immolator Dorjee Tsering, displayed at a Tibetan rally in New York City; right, Dorjee’s parents, Nyima Yangzom and Thupten Tashi (seated), in Asansol, India
An image of self-immolator Dorjee Tsering, displayed at a Tibetan rally in New York City; right, Dorjee’s parents, Nyima Yangzom and Thupten Tashi (seated), in Asansol, India (Photo: Karanjit Singh)
Tracy Ross

Tibet Is Still Burning

Over the past ten years, more than 160 Tibetans have committed self-immolation—the act of setting yourself on fire—to protest Chinese occupation of their country. Has this had any lasting effect? In an extraordinary journey to Dharamsala, India, the center of Tibetan culture in exile, a journalist and a scholar talk to family members about the meaning and costs of the ultimate political sacrifice.

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On a path winding around the Dalai Lama’s temple, in a village near Dharamsala, India, called McLeod Ganj, I met a monk who taught me the meaning of om mani padme hum—“all hail the jewel in the lotus”—while he scattered handfuls of rice on top of a concrete wall for the resident monkeys. Next to the complex, carved into cedar-forested hillsides, were monuments honoring the most important living figure in Tibetan Buddhism, who relocated here in 1959 after fleeing the Chinese.

When the monk finished, we walked around the temple together, passing through thousands of gently waving prayer flags that formed tunnels connecting stupas and frescoes. We saw an interpretive display that explained how the government of Communist China had invaded Tibet in October 1950, sending 40,000 troops across Tibet’s eastern border and easily routing the nation’s small army. Nearly a decade of discontent with the new de facto government came to a head in March of 1959, when China quashed a civilian uprising in the capital, Lhasa. It called this brutal takeover a “peaceful liberation.”

We also saw a small building that housed a huge, gold-embossed prayer wheel. A steady flow of locals—nuns, monks, and laypeople—spun it by hand, releasing scriptural wisdom into the universe. But the placid scene around the temple changed at a covered pavilion near the room with the prayer wheel. Inside was a wall of pictures as wide and tall as three billboards. Some of the images were of blacked-out human silhouettes; others showed distinct faces. Most were men, a few women. Some looked barely older than children.

There was little explanatory text, so I felt confused when I saw it, until I zeroed in on a picture in the upper left-hand corner of the middle panel. It showed a young Tibetan man running toward the camera, his face frozen in pain, his arms rising off his body. He was engulfed in flames, and now I knew: the wall commemorated dozens of the estimated 164 Tibetans who over the past 20 years have burned themselves alive to protest Chinese occupation of their country.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked, since self-immolation was the reason I’d come to Dharamsala in the first place. Six months earlier, I’d had tea with my neighbor Carole McGranahan, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado who has studied the history and culture of Tibet and the Himalayas since the early 1990s. Carole, now 50, is a jovial bookworm with a high tolerance for risk. As part of her ethnographic fieldwork, she’s lived for months at a time in communities in Nepal and India and has traveled to Tibet five times. She once sneaked into Tibet on a 60-truck Chinese army caravan, posing as a backpacker. And she was in Tibet with New York Times correspondent Nicholas Kristof when the Soviet Union fell in 1991. “It was surreal,” she says. “We were in a Communist country, and because of the information blackout, no one but a handful of us knew.” Carole is one of the leading scholars in the West on the Tibetan resistance, and she has published extensively on the Tibetan culture and empire, refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora, and self-immolation.

I knew Carole casually; I’d shot the bull with her at neighborhood gatherings in our hometown of Nederland, Colorado. We frequently discussed Nepal and Tibet, and one day I arranged to interview her about the work she does with refugee communities like Dharamsala, which is home to a large concentration of Himachal Pradesh’s 44,500 exiled Tibetans. As we sat in a creekside café, our conversation shifted to the subject of protests by fire.

As I’ve learned, Buddhist self-immolations didn’t originate in Tibet but in Vietnam. Non-Buddhist immolations have also occurred in such disparate places as the U.S., Czechoslovakia, and Tunisia. The first one prompted by the occupation of Tibet happened in 1998, performed by an exiled Tibetan after Indian police forcefully ended the 40-day Unto Death Hunger Strike he was involved with. Years passed before the next Tibetan self-immolation, which took place in 2009, inside Tibet, following riots that occurred during the lead-up to the Olympics in Beijing. In 2011, at least 12 Tibetans killed themselves with fire. By April of 2012, the total had jumped to 98. “That year was the absolute worst,” Carole told me, “and now, seven years later, it’s in the 160’s.”

That afternoon I watched my first video of a self-immolation, which I found online. It didn’t show the process from start to finish; it was of a man who was already burning. As the fire consumes him, he staggers forward like Frankenstein’s monster until he falls to the ground, writhing. In some of these videos, you hear screaming. But the screen always seems to go black before the protestor dies.

You can’t unsee a person so committed to a cause that they’ll douse themselves with gasoline or kerosene, go to a public place, light a match, and burst into flames. But the images lack context and fail to give you the full story about the reasoning behind the act, the resolve to do it, or the drama of premeditation. All you see is flesh burning, mouths screaming, bodies falling, and, at times, the person clutching a Tibetan flag or a picture of the Dalai Lama.

It’s also unclear what these sacrificial gestures accomplish. Even when videos are smuggled out of Tibet—where the vast majority of self-immolations have happened—they rarely cause a hiccup in the international news cycle. Almost all of the videos from inside Tibet come from citizen journalists. If they make it out of the country, they’re sent to Dharamsala, where activists do their best to verify credibility. But the videos can be downplayed or discounted, because news organizations want the security of using their own journalists and photographers. The situation results in limited information reaching a generalized audience and the feeling, at least for me, that a sort of scrim lies between the events and their dissemination, making it hard to know what’s true or false. This may explain why such a large number of people who I know to be in tune with world events had never heard of self-immolation before I brought it up.

Soon after our conversation, Carole and I made a plan. We’d track down families of self-immolators to learn their stories.

Actually entering Tibet was out of the question: Carole has written extensively about opposition to China’s policies, and it’s not feasible for her to get a visa anymore. She spent several weeks investigating what might happen if we obtained Chinese visas and went, and she was told by sources that even if we made it past the border, Chinese police would be waiting at our hotel. 

I then investigated going alone, looking up several tour operators and asking one to let me embed on a trip and talk to Tibetans undercover. The owner said no, writing:

“The Chinese government always knows when stories are written regarding Tibet. Even if we took every precaution we could, the risk to local people that you would interact with, along with my staff, is just too high. If they were found to have interacted with you, my staff and the people you talked with could face ten or more years in a hard labor prison. I truly wish there was something that we could do, but there isn’t.”

With reporting in Tibet next to impossible, Carole and I would go to India to interview family members she’d tracked down with the help of her vast network of Tibetan friends and colleagues. Nearly 70 years after the Chinese takeover, we wanted to learn about these martyrs, what drove them, what happened after they perished, and why the sacrifices continue, even when it seems like they aren’t achieving their stated goals—to shock the world into caring about Tibet and to convince leaders of superpowers that it would be worth it to try and force China to give the country back.

Our first stop in India was far from Dharamsala—in Asansol, a metropolitan area of 1.2 million people 120 miles north of Calcutta. There we found the parents of a 16-year-old Tibetan schoolboy, born and raised in India, who’d self-immolated in February 2016. Then we flew to Dharamsala.

On the day when we visited the Dalai Lama’s temple, Carole and I stood mute before the wall of martyrs. Then we visited another monument, this one recognizing a pair of Tibetans who self-immolated during protests in India. Past them we saw a looming bronze statue of a monk in flames, his face turned skyward in an expression of defiance. Next to the monastery, we entered a museum dedicated to Tibetan history. In one room, a short video of Tibetans burning alive loops over and over. I watched it alongside two blue-eyed tourist kids who couldn’t have been older than ten.

I wanted to mutter that this probably wasn’t appropriate viewing for children. But I checked myself, because I was glad they were witnessing a truth about Tibet that the brochures and travel magazines gloss over. Since China absorbed the country, Tibetans have endured rape, beatings, disappearances, imprisonment, theft of land, theft of language, and suppression of religion. This year, Freedom House, an independent human-rights watchdog group, ranked Tibet as the second most oppressed place in the world—after Syria—because China’s authorities are being “especially rigorous in suppressing any signs of dissent among Tibetans, including manifestations of uniquely Tibetan religious belief and cultural identity.”

This can be hard to reconcile when you hear media reports about how China has been so good for Tibet, modernizing an impoverished, feudal state with infrastructure and economic opportunity.

You can’t unsee a person so committed to a cause that they’ll douse themselves with gasoline or kerosene, go to a public place, light a match, and burst into flames.

According to figures from the Chinese government, which may be inflated, Beijing has pumped billions into development in the Tibet Autonomous Region (a Chinese province that’s now the most developed part of the ethnocultural region of Tibet), which has translated to skyrocketing GDP growth. China built a train connecting Beijing to Lhasa, making industrial goods easier for rural Tibetans to acquire. China says there’s been an explosion in tourism to Tibet, growing from 1.8 million visitors in 2005 to 20.2 million in 2015. Even remote parts of the Tibetan plateau have been modernized with paved roads and cell-phone service. And according to a recent NBC News story, China has spent hundreds of millions renovating Tibet’s major monasteries and other religious sites since the 1980s, with an additional $290 million budgeted for the same purpose through 2023.

But to say that China has benevolently restructured Tibetan life for the better and that Tibetans have “benefitted” from all that it’s done is debatable, Carole says.

“The way Tibetans are ‘succeeding’ is through having an entire cultural way of life, of being in the world, of thinking about the world, canceled in favor of a Chinese communist way, or more ironically, of Chinese communist capitalism being held up as beneficial to Tibetans,” she says. “This is a classic case of colonialism. If you can master the colonizer’s language, mindset, and strategies for success, then perhaps you can do well. But in the end, you’re still a Tibetan—an oppressed minority—and marked that way by the Chinese state in everything you do.”

Three days before the temple visit, Carole and I stood in the lobby of our hotel in Asansol, bowing and shaking hands with Nyima Yangzom, 64, and Thupten Tashi, 71, the parents of Dorjee Tsering, the 16-year-old who self-immolated on February 29, 2016. Dorjee’s death had caused an international stir, partly because of his age and partly because, on the same day he acted, an 18-year-old burned himself inside China. Both died.

That evening we went to Nyima and Thupten’s humid two-room flat to break the ice before interviewing them about Dorjee. To get there, you pass a stable where local Indians take sick, injured, and abandoned cows, and Tibetans live in crude rooms above them. Many Tibetans migrate here from Indian cities far away to sell their wares, including sweaters. In Nyima and Thupten’s flat, hundreds of them, purchased on credit, line the walls. They try to sell them all in November and December. Then they head back to their home, 900 miles away, in Dehradun, India. 

If you ignore the socioeconomic challenges Tibetans experience in India—such as their limited abilities to acquire property and passports—life in exile had been generally tolerable for Nyima and Thupten. As of 2015, two of their three kids had completed secondary school, and it seemed like their youngest, Dorjee, would follow. But Dorjee was different. Speaking with a smile through our translator, Nyima said that, as a child, he was “a terror.”

A child touching images of Tibetan self-immolators
A child touching images of Tibetan self-immolators (Karanjit Singh)

“When he was two years old, when he was taken to the marketplace, if he wanted something, he would grab it,” she said. “If not given it, he would calm down only if someone gave him a toffee. Everyone said, ‘Do something about this guy, he’s not normal!’ But then, when he grew up to class five and six, he was very generous.”

At Dorjee’s boarding school in Mussoorie, Nyima said, there were children who had no money and would “hardly go home during the holidays.” So teenage Dorjee gave away his sneakers, backpack, cell phone, and textbooks. When he returned home for a break, Nyima would scold him. His response might have pleased the Dalai Lama.

“When you see those children without money, gifts, or parents to visit, you know you should help them,” he’d say. If Thupten chided him for making poor grades, he’d flash a smile and add, “I’m good at heart and morally very strong. So which person would you rather pick? Someone good at his studies or loving and kind?”

Toward the end of Dorjee’s 15th year, his attention shifted to something else: Tibet.

“At that time, he started telling Thupten, ‘I want to do something for my country,’” Nyima said. “And Thupten would reply, ‘Study hard, work for the government, fulfill the Dalai Lama’s wishes.’” When Dorjee said the same things to Nyima, she told him, “You’re too young, you need to finish your studies. And if you do something too drastic, you’ll make us sad.”

Dorjee kept giving clues, but they missed—or avoided—them. During one of his breaks, while he, Nyima, and Thupten were visiting his uncle at a settlement for elderly Tibetan refugees, he made a decision.

One morning as Nyima made breakfast, Dorjee hovered near her in the kitchen. “I have to go, I have to go,” he said. She thought he was talking about his return to school. He asked for money, and she gave him some, thinking it was for a haircut.

He left and was gone several hours. When he returned, he told Nyima and Thupten, “I love you, ama. I love you, pala. I’ll be OK. Don’t worry.” 

That evening, Dorjee hugged his mother. The next morning, he hiked away from the camp. Out of sight, he hoisted a can of kerosene out of some bushes, poured it over his shoulders and torso, and lit himself with a match.

The next thing Nyima remembers was hearing people in the settlement shouting, “Something is running! Something burning!” She looked out the door and saw her son’s face twisted in pain as flames engulfed his body. She threw her arms around him, to protect his head from the rising fire, but someone pulled her off. She and others helped Dorjee to an outdoor faucet. They doused the flames ravaging his body, but it was too late: he’d been mortally damaged by burns and died in a Delhi hospital three days later.

It might seem strange that a teenager sacrificed his life for a country he’d never visited. But Dorjee’s teachers told Nyima that, at 15, he started spending all his free time in the school library. They assume he was educating himself about the atrocities China has inflicted on Tibetans. In a video statement Dorjee made just before he died, he said he hoped that “countries like UK, America, Africa, wherever, they will pay attention to Tibetans and support us and help us.”

Dorjee’s death still torments his parents. The skin under Nyima’s arms aches from the burns she sustained trying to save him, and Thupten has developed an unexplained tremor in one hand and loss of hearing in an ear. Both listened somberly when the Dalai Lama told them, in person, to be proud of Dorjee, that he was no longer their son but a son of Tibet. But before we leave, Nyima tells us that if she and Thupten had known how Dorjee felt, they would have “used that activism in a positive way to influence him.” 

“You can do positive for Tibet,” she would have said. But now they just miss him.

That night in our hotel room, as traffic screamed by and our jet lag finally crushed us, I swam in the bottomed-out devastation of what Carole and I had just witnessed. Nyima’s pain was so overwhelming that she couldn’t stop it from geysering out of her body. She rocked on the ground and slapped her forehead as she seemed to relive every moment. At one point, when describing her burns, she mimed the skin under her arms melting. And as she spilled the story into the room, Thupten sat opposite her on the floor, silently crying.  

Not in all my of years of reporting had I witnessed such visceral pain, nor had Carole in her decades of research. In our room, clutching a yellow legal pad, she tried to explain how interviewing Thupten and Nyima had been different. 

“This was devastating in a whole new way, because of the incomprehensibility of being the parents whose child self-immolated,” she said. “I mean, most of the focus from scholars has been on the self-immolator—on their body in the burning state and on the words they wrote or spoke, their testimony. But there’s Nyima, sitting next to us, wanting to tell the story so badly, and yet feeling the pain through the telling. It’s an incredible sadness. As a mother, you tell it in the hope that your son’s act will affect some good in this world, and yet you can never really know.”

Two days later, we escaped the heat of Asansol and entered the cool air of Dharamsala, a city perched on the edge of the Himalayas at 4,780 feet. On the winding streets, weaving between startled-looking tourists shopping for dashboard statues of Shiva, Tibetan Buddhist nuns and monks walked with intention, some holding malas—Buddhist prayer beads—and others carrying bags of chicken. The mala holders slipped beads through their fingers in time with their prayers for all sentient beings, while the chicken keepers pulled chunks of raw bird from beneath their robes and fed them to packs of dogs that range this steep-hilled city freely.

Perhaps as a result of being doted on, the dogs were the mellowest I’d ever met. And the Tibetans living in the diaspora are friendly to a fault. Every morning just before dawn, streams of them walked past my teahouse window, chanting on their way to do kora (meditation while circumambulating) around the temple. The sound started as a low hum in the purple light of predawn, then formed into words—om mani padme hum—as the crowd drew closer. On four mornings, I left the comfort of my bed and joined them, greeted by smiles and quick bows from the devout.

The Dalai Lama espouses a mind-body approach to enlightenment, which for many people means a daily stroll outside the monastery or on a treadmill if it’s raining. Hip Tibetan youth also work out, post disappearing videos on WeChat (the Chinese social-media service), dream of both returning to Tibet and immigrating to the West, and uphold their devotion to their religious and spiritual leader.

Most lay Tibetans in the diaspora look nothing like the image Westerners have in mind: They’re 21st-century, iPhone-carrying Buddhists. One morning I spotted a group of them doing squats and stretching near the temple path, decked out in track pants and sweatbands. We exchanged waves, and I asked what they were doing. One mimed running. They’d jog their laps around the temple, maybe do some plyometrics in the tunnel of prayer flags leading to the stupa. Then they’d go to their jobs at the Central Tibetan Administration complex or the Tibetan Children’s Village school or in one of the many businesses lining the narrow streets snaking into the mountains.

A makeshift family shrine to Dorjee Tsering; right, Dorjee’s brother, Tsering Gelek, showing Dorjee’s last self-portrait
A makeshift family shrine to Dorjee Tsering; right, Dorjee’s brother, Tsering Gelek, showing Dorjee’s last self-portrait (Karanjit Singh)

Dharamsala is the administrative center of the Tibetan government in exile. The Tibetans have their own parliament, court system, schools, and hospitals. In recent years, Tibetans lucky enough to obtain foreign visas have begun migrating to cities around the world. But those who stay relish the fact that the current Dalai Lama, who they believe to be the 14th reincarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, lives among them.

“On any given day, everyone knows if he is home or not,” Carole says. “As Tibetans have dispersed around the world, it’s almost like a new importance has come to Dharamsala. It’s now a site for bringing together Tibetan activists from other countries, all in an interest to free Tibet from China.” 

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama’s official stance on the situation is that he doesn’t seek independence for Tibet, but autonomy. For many Tibetans, though, no resolution will be achieved until their countrymen inside Tibet are free to worship as they please, the Dalai Lama can return as their spiritual leader, and they can return to their own country. 

Two days later, Carole and I met Gyaltsen Rangzen, a 31-year-old dressed in a traditional Tibetan wool jacket, at a crowded Dharamsala restaurant. A lama gave him his name, but he chose the surname Rangzen, which means “independence” in Tibetan, after making a daring escape from the province of Amdo, north of the Tibet Autonomous Region, in 2005, when he was 15.

The plan he’d devised was harrowing. He and his 14-year-old sister, Yepo, caught a ride from Amdo to Lhasa. There, through family friends, they met a driver who transported them 460 miles to the Nepalese border. They’d paid 40,000 rupees each (around $560) for the assurance of safety, but even so, when they reached the Chinese-occupied town of Dram, filled with soldiers on the lookout for escapees, they had to skirt it by hiking through dangerous Himalayan terrain. Though they slept on the ground and ate food that made them sick from both ends for seven days, they were lucky and survived. In 2006, near that same place, climbers on the Tibetan side of Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth-highest mountain, watched as Chinese police opened fire on a caravan of 70 fleeing Tibetans, killing a 17-year-old nun.

When Gyaltsen and Yepo finally reached the border, Nepali guards stripped off their clothing, searched their belongings and bodies, and stuffed them in a jeep driven by a soldier. They spent nine weeks in a Tibetan reception center in Kathmandu, then made their way to Dharamsala.

Gyaltsen now works at the Indian headquarters of Students for a Free Tibet, where he earns enough to barely support himself, Yepo, and a family member new to Dharamsala, an ex-political prisoner who Gyaltsen helped escape. His crime? Owning a CD recorded by a Tibetan artist who writes pro-independence lyrics. His punishment? Arrest, beatings, and an 18-month imprisonment, during which he was forced to sew Tibetan prayer flags for a business. He arrived in Dharamsala two weeks before I did and wasn’t adjusting well to the food or culture.

“But people can endure so much more difficulties,” Gyaltsen said. Which is why he sometimes wonders why his cousin, Lobsang Jamyang, lit himself on fire.

Gyaltsen and Lobsang grew up together. Every summer they’d spend three months with their families, digging for the caterpillar fungi popular among the Chinese as an aphrodisiac. It was a place free from Chinese influence, where the little boys, ages ten and eight, could play. Gyaltsen remembers Lobsang being impulsive and funny: One day, Gyaltsen’s father promised Lobsang a lollipop in exchange for good behavior. When days passed and no lollipop appeared, Lobsang demanded, “When are you giving me the candy?”

“I’ll give it to you when I’m ready,” Gyaltsen’s father said. 

“When will that be, on your deathbed?” Lobsang asked.

After Gyaltsen escaped to India, he kept tabs on Lobsang through his own brother. As a boy, Lobsang had entered a monastery to become a monk. But at age 12, he moved back to his parents’ home in Amdo. “A Tibetan’s greatest wish is to care for his parents as they get old,” Gyaltsen told me.

Gyaltsen Rangzen, a cousin of self-immolator Lobsang Jamyang; right, a scene from a march in McLeod Ganj on behalf of self-immolator Sonam Topgyal
Gyaltsen Rangzen, a cousin of self-immolator Lobsang Jamyang; right, a scene from a march in McLeod Ganj on behalf of self-immolator Sonam Topgyal (Karanjit Singh)

But that meant a smaller life for Lobsang during a time of great political upheaval. In 2008, during the lead-up to the Olympics in Beijing, hundreds of monks and other Tibetans took to the streets of Lhasa to protest Chinese occupation. This grew into the biggest protest since the late 1980s. The Chinese government fought violent crowds in various regions with tear gas, imprisonment, and beatings. By the end of 2008, more than 100 Tibetans had been killed and thousands more arrested. Self-immolation came to Tibet early the next year, when a monk from the Kirti Monastery burned himself in a city called Ngaba.

By then the internet had made its way to the most remote regions of the country, and news of the self-immolation spread. “Self-immolations make you feel really, really bad about the Chinese government,” Gyaltsen told us. “The idea it will fix something spread.” Between 2009 and 2011, Amdo alone saw at least nine self-immolations. Gyaltsen believes Lobsang got swept up in the idea that this act was the only one powerful enough to make a difference.

On January 14, 2012, Lobsang paid a motorcycle driver to take him eight miles away to Ngaba. Along the road sat a monastery, where he stopped to do kora. Getting back on the bike, he told the driver he had three messages for all Tibetans: They should unite politically. They should preserve their language. And they should always get along interpersonally. They drove the rest of the way to Ngaba, and while the driver was getting lunch, Lobsang slipped into a public restroom, doused himself in kerosene, and re-emerged on fire.

“The driver knows it’s him because of his coat, and at first, he tried to do something,” Gyaltsen said. “But we Tibetans believe if someone is self-immolating, don’t try to stop him, because if you are half-burned, the Chinese will take you away and harm you.”

This isn’t an exaggeration: according to the International Campaign for Tibet, Chinese police have beaten, shot, isolated, and disappeared self-immolators who survived. That’s why they sometimes drink flammable liquid instead of just dousing themselves. They want to explode.

Lobsang was still alive when police arrived and tried to cover him with a sheet. He got up, ran, and fell, so they covered him again. “Then another group came with wood sticks with spikes attached to the end,” Gyaltsen said angrily, “and they beat him while he was burning.” Police took him to a provincial hospital, where he was pronounced dead two days later.

Gyaltsen is proud of Lobsang’s sacrifice. But he also sent a note to his village that said, “Don’t self-immolate just because my cousin did. Don’t consider him a hero. If you really want to do something good for Tibet, go to school, preserve the language, and be a good Tibetan.”

Two days after our meeting with Gyaltsen, I went with Carole to Sarah College for Higher Tibetan Studies, a school started by the Dalai Lama that caters to both lay students and monks, with an emphasis on Tibetan literature and language. We arrived to hear a grown monk teaching several young monks the style of debate used in the Dalai Lama’s particular sect of Buddhism (Gelug), as birds flitted around the perfectly manicured campus. It was an idyllic scene in a city in which I felt completely at ease and safe at all times and one that encourages kindness and compassion at every turn—literally, from murals painted on countless walls to an ambulance dedicated to the chicken-eating dogs. 

But there’s plenty of underlying pain, too, which I saw during a Night of Culture hosted by Students for a Free Tibet (SFT), at which several locally famous poets read about loss, wandering, longing, and resistance; in a group of very old men who’d escaped Tibet long ago and now met daily to pray, drink milk tea, and reminisce about their true home; and in the newly escaped boys and girls at the Tibetan Children’s Village school, who were largely unaware of the conflict they’d been secreted away from but felt the sadness of their displacement acutely. 

At another SFT-sponsored event, I met my next relative of a self-immolator, this one a man named Tenzin Tsundue, who is known internationally for his writing and political activism. Carole introduced me to him, and he said he was having a party. 

Tsundue, whose cousin self-immolated in 2017, sneaked into Tibet in the 1990s and was captured and imprisoned for months. He’s written several highly regarded books, including a collection of poems called Crossing the Border and Kora, which contains an award-winning essay about refugee life, “My Kind of Exile.” He’s a big shot, and when I asked if I could interview him before the soiree, he huffed and puffed a bit at first.

“So you are a journalist?” Yes. “What do you want with me?” I said I wanted to talk about his cousin.

“Well, you can come along, and if I have time, we can talk.” I slipped into a taxi between him and Carole, and we went to his home, a ramshackle compound near the Central Tibetan Administration that he calls Rangzen Ashram. There, several members of the SFT, including Gyaltsen, were already half-drunk on Kingfisher beers. Tsundue soon opened up, inviting me and several others into his bedroom/office, where he held court and talked about his cousin, Tenzin Choeying.

“We Tibetans believe if someone is self-immolating, don’t try to stop him, because if you are half-burned, the Chinese will take you away and harm you.”

At 19, Choeying was more mature than Dorjee Tsering, and as a college student in Varanasi, India, he seemed poised for a rewarding life. But the difficulties of his childhood can’t be overlooked. Like thousands of Tibetans, he grew up in a camp, in a place in southern India called Kollegal. He knew that he would never gain Indian citizenship, because his parents refused to let him pursue it.

“The tragedy of exile life is that families are so scattered,” Tsundue said. “I’m ashamed to say that, because I am an activist living in Dharamsala, and Choeying was a student studying in Varanasi, I know more about him from his classmates than from my own interactions.”

Choeying’s friends apparently considered him the most socially conscious person in their group, but he also loved playing soccer, sharing ideas, and generally having fun. Whether in the classroom or at a university conference, he’d be the first to arrive and the last to go, setting up tables, dialing in the mic, sweeping floors. He thrived at the university, delving into his own culture and language. “Beyond this it’s hard to get a deep explanation about anything regarding Choeying,” Tsundue said. “Because it’s so touchy. They die. No one is happy.”

All he knows is that, on July 14, 2017, Choeying and some friends were on their way to a university lecture by Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration. At one point, Choeying told his friends to go ahead—he’d forgotten something in his dorm room. After the others moved on, he ducked into a public restroom where he’d stashed two soda bottles full of gasoline. He doused himself and lit a match. Tsundue described what happened next, which was caught on campus security cameras.

“Down a long corridor came a ball of fire,” he said. “It’s literally running into the garden and falling. But you can see a flag of Tibet, and the ball is screaming, ‘Long live the Dalai Lama!’ Then it collapses.”

Campus gardeners ran to Choeying’s aid, drenching him with water from a hose. When the students rushed from the lecture hall, they saw him on the ground with a scorched Tibetan flag. Someone called Tsundue’s sister, who notified Tsundue. He dropped everything to go and care for Choeying.

Choeying lived eight days, and for most of that time, Tsundue was with him. Though he had horrific burns over much of his body, his doctors thought he might survive, because there was no apparent damage to his internal organs. But over the next few days, as Tsundue watched, he saw “dark patches spreading from Choeying’s neck up to his chin, up to his face. It was as if the fire was spreading now.” On day eight, Choeying started to have breathing problems. “Now very fast,” Tsundue said. “So we are trying to comfort him. And he’s talking in small gasps of air. ‘Give me water. Give me water. There is a lot of pain. Where is my mother?’” This continued throughout the day, and Tsundue knew he was dying.

At that time, Tsundue said, Choeying started saying, “Bod, Bod, Bod,” meaning “Tibet.” Tsundue had a picture of the Dalai Lama with him, and he held it before Choeying’s eyes. He said, “Look here, look, this is His Holiness.” Choeying gazed, repeated “Bod,” and then died with his eyes open, staring at the Dalai Lama’s image.

Here, Tsundue paused. For a second, I thought he would continue. But he just stared at the floor and shook his head.

What happens during a self-immolation is almost incomprehensible. First, the kerosene or gas poured onto clothing enables ignition. The resulting third-degree burn—the most intense kind, producing charred or whitened skin—can be less painful than milder burns. That’s because the damage is so deep that the nerves die. Deep-thickness burns can cause the skin to contract, and if it’s over your rib cage, it can tighten to the point that it inhibits breathing. A cut can be made to allow inhalation, but by now the body is shunting all blood and fluid to the burned area, and because healthy skin usually holds fluid in, it leaks out. Eventually, burn victims suffer organ death, respiratory failure, or sepsis, and without proper pain medication, they die one of the most painful deaths imaginable.

No one knows if Ngawang Norphel, the last self-immolator I learned about during my trip, knew this. I met his uncle, Tenzin Phelgye, inside a quiet Dharamsala restaurant. With the place empty and the shades drawn, he told me the story of his 22-year-old nephew, who self-immolated on June 20, 2012. Before the interview, I’d watched it on video.

In a village square, a man is on fire. Flames lick his head as another man approaches. This man ignites himself off the first, and falls, succumbing to the heat. The first man remains standing, then runs, then stumbles, and then rises to run again. As he continues to burn, a woman in traditional Tibetan dress throws a khata—a white silk scarf used as a religious offering—in his direction. He’s still burning when the clip ends and another clip, with his name on it, appears in the YouTube queue.

The streets of Dharamsala; right, Tibetan exiles resting during the kora
The streets of Dharamsala; right, Tibetan exiles resting during the kora (Karanjit Singh)

We’re now in a room inside a monastery. It’s empty except for a disembodied voice and the bedridden form of Ngawang, whose face is mostly burned away. The voice coming out sounds like someone being strangled underwater. Words on the screen tell you what Ngawang is saying.

“My people have no freedom of language. Everybody is mixing Tibetan and Chinese. What has happened to my land of snow?”

He asks about the man who burned with him, a friend named Tenzin Khedup. (Khedup is dead, but a monk says, “He is fine.”) Ngawang says in Tibetan, “We two sworn brothers. We won’t fail next time. If we don’t have our freedom, cultural traditions, and language, it would be extremely embarrassing for us. Every nationality needs freedom, language, and tradition. Should we then call ourselves Chinese or Tibetan?”

Ngawang keeps talking to a voice he believes is Khedup. 

Aro, Khedup! Aro, Khedup! Where are you?” Ngawang asks.

The monk says, “Just behind you.” 

“How is my face?”

“It will get better.”

“I don’t look like a human. I look dreadful, don’t I? I smell kerosene. We poured quite a lot of kerosene. Really, the way you fell down and rose up again, you really showed some courage. Aro!” 

The video ends. If you watch, you may let yourself believe that this time, since Ngawang is with monks, he will fare better than other self-immolators. 

But you mustn’t let yourself believe, because the Chinese are coming.

“Somehow they find where he is staying, and they take him to a military hospital,” Phelgye told me. “They ask him many questions—who guide you? How many people guide with you?’” Ngawang held his tongue, but a policeman from his hometown said, “You can’t survive. You’re going to die soon. Tell the truth, and we won’t harm your parents or family.” So Ngawang told him where his father lived, and the police went and got him. Ngawang recognized his father's voice, Phelgye said, “and Ngawang cried, ‘Father! Maybe I will recover!’”

“He can’t survive, though, because almost everything is burnt,” Phelgye said. “And then they put so many things in his body—to get information—names, who guided him.” Ngawang refused to talk, and he died days later. Phelgye said the Tibetan Youth Congress held a puja for him at the temple in Dharamsala and that a spokesman for the Dalai Lama said he had prayed for Ngawang. That was good for Phelgye but not for his family, who still have trouble with the Chinese government.

“Many things I tell you I can’t speak about openly,” Phelgye said. “But after Ngawang’s death, there was a big retaliation. Two to three times, people in his family go to jail. And the police hijack their cell phones. Every day police come to the house, but these things we can’t speak more of.”

Eventually it came time for Carole and me to go home. She left after ten days; four days later, I followed.

During my time alone, I continued doing interviews. I forged on with the terrible work because, now that I’d heard the stories of self-immolators, I wanted a Tibetan to tell me if they’d died in vain or not. And I wanted to know if there was the slightest chance—through the self-immolations or some other tool of politics or diplomacy—for Tibet to ever be free. The situation is so complex that, when I left, I didn’t have a clear answer.

I flew back to Colorado and began sifting through my notes, but I soon felt despondent. I wondered how I could write a story in which self-immolation made sense. How could I extract meaning so that the stories weren’t just a collection of horrors? I turned to Carole, who seemed to be waiting for my call. She said there are four important things to remember when thinking about self-immolation.

Each is a combination of religion and politics. All are done as part of the Tibetan struggle. All are a form of communication. And all are an offering.

“So while there’s no history of them until very recently in Tibet, every single monastery and home has an altar with a lamp that’s always lit,” Carole said. “The flame is an eternal form of prayer to the gods and has been a part of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for as long as we know. It’s no big stretch, then, to think of self-immolators turning their bodies into an offering to show the world how badly Tibet is suffering.”

Author and activist Tenzin Tsundue, cousin of self-immolator Tenzin Choeying; right, Tenzin Phelgye, uncle of self-immolator Ngawang Norphel
Author and activist Tenzin Tsundue, cousin of self-immolator Tenzin Choeying; right, Tenzin Phelgye, uncle of self-immolator Ngawang Norphel (Karanjit Singh)

But their method hasn’t worked. Many complicating factors make this the case, including China’s growing international power. Some countries are trying to help—in September 2018, for example, U.S. Congress passed the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act, which promotes access to Tibet for American officials, journalists, NGOs, and citizens. But the act’s success is contingent on China cooperating, and Carole does not believe China will ease access to Tibet for Americans. The U.S. and other countries have more pressing matters than helping a place that most people have forgotten. So that leaves a future in which Tibet must fend for itself, and self-immolation is still a chosen means of protest. In the month after I got home, two more young men chose this path.

But some leaders are urging alternatives. The Dalai Lama remains neutral, but in 2011, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the head of the Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism (one of the four main schools of the religion), urged Tibetans “to preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause.” Other prominent leaders have preached the same message. And in some places this is already taking place. 

In the aftermath of the 2008 uprisings, a nonviolent, community-based form of protest sprung up called Lhakar (“White Wednesday”). Described as a “celebration of Tibetan spirit,” it happens on the day of the week astrologically recognized as auspicious for the Dalai Lama. It grew into a crusade of creative expression and a celebration of Tibetan values. Every Wednesday since, thousands of Tibetans have made conscious efforts to speak only Tibetan, eat only Tibetan food, wear only Tibetan clothing, and buy only Tibetan-made goods.

Quietly and with no fanfare, they also boycott Chinese products, pray in groups, and gaze at photos of the Dalai Lama sent to them through WeChat—a crime punishable by imprisonment. Tibetans also practice Lhakar in exile. And inside Tibet, another form of protest has arisen. According to Tenzin Tsundue, Tibetans are singing, dancing, and writing. Tibetan hip-hop has become popular, Tibetan poets are poster boys, and Tibetan singers are widely promoted objects of public adoration. 

This was hard for me to understand, because of the story I’d heard about Gyaltsen’s brother-in-law being imprisoned for owning a single CD of Tibetan music. But for years prior to the rise of self-immolation, Carole said, “artistic expression was where some of the boldest expressions of resistance took place. Artists have a sense of what’s allowed, in terms of lines you’re not allowed to cross, and they cross them anyway. Sometimes it’s in coded language that only Tibetans can understand, and then sometimes it just blatantly challenges the government. It’s not fully explainable, but it’s taking place.”

“These artists play the role of cultural icon,” Tsundue told me. “When they sing, thousands of people come together. So this cult of empowerment is the one that’s providing the leadership in Tibet today.”

Tsundue firmly believes that art, not burning, will help Tibetans sustain their hope. But we can also assume that China won’t loosen its grip anytime soon. And for many Tibetans, both at home and displaced, their reality may take a still darker turn. 

The Dalai Lama is 84. When he dies, China has threatened to install its interpretation of his successor. Chinese authorities have already gone so far as to sign a law saying that only the Chinese Communist Party can recognize Tibetan Buddhist reincarnate lamas. The Dalai Lama himself has indicated that he may not reincarnate. And in 1995, when Tibetans did find the reincarnation of another lama (Panchen Lama), the Chinese government promptly kidnapped the six-year-old child and his family—they have never been seen since. 

One thing is certain, says Carole: if the Chinese government does install its own Dalai Lama, Tibetans “will not take that seriously at all.” But it’s not clear who could be a new Dalai Lama–type unifying figure if he chooses not to reincarnate. All of this can create a state of confusion and multiple ways that a future Tibet could unravel.

Should the Chinese appoint their own Dalai Lama, Gyaltsen worries that international support for Tibetans will deteriorate and the link between Tibetans inside and out will be “gapped.” He fears that Tibetans inside Tibet will no longer consider the Central Tibetan Administration their government and may lose their will to fight for an independent country. 

If that happens, how easy would it be to light a match?

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