BEIJING, China- Since February 2009, the world has witnessed 127 Tibetans set themselves on fire. According to Voice of America (VOA), these are acts of protests seeking to bring attention to “China’s policy in their homeland.” The majority of those who have self-immolated have been reported to call for the freedom of the Tibetan people and for the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
The Dalai Lama has been in exile in India since 1959 following increasing conflict after China’s occupation of the country in 1949.
As self-immolations have increased, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has attempted to curb these Tibetan protests through different policies. While information on the self-immolations, PRC’s response, and the impact on communities is limited due to the country’s censorship and media restrictions, there are several reports detailing policies which dramatically increase military presence in affected areas.
According to the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), responses have also “been combined with a more aggressive and formalized response to the self-immolations, involving harsh sentencing and torture for those suspected of involvement, even if that is simply bearing witness.”
This tactic of punishing the families, friends, and communities of those who self-immolated has taking yet another turn. The newest policy seeks to strike Tibet’s communities where it could have the most lasting impact: their wallets and livelihoods.
The South China Morning Post (SCMP) recently reported that a policy, “…barring parents, partners, children and siblings of Tibetan self-immolators from travelling, running a new business, and obtaining a loan and social security benefits” has been issued in Tibetan communities within the Sichuan Province of China last year.
According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), this new 16-rule policy states if one is found to be associated with a self-immolator they will be barred from various benefits like receiving government aid and disqualified from certain employment opportunities, such as village-level leadership roles. Farmland used by a self-immolator will also have to be returned back to the government.
RFA continues to write that even the communities where the protests took place will “have to return all state financial aid…and must be completely deprived of government assistance.” According to this, these families will not only stop receiving monetary aid, but will be banned from owning land and ordered to return subsidies from the prior three years.
Offenders will also be barred from entering Tibet’s capital city, Lhasa, for the next three years, a place often seen as a destination for Buddhist pilgrimages.
Also, monastic communities commit the majority of these self-immolations; therefore, monasteries have strictly been targeted. For instance, RFA writes, “Monasteries where self-immolations occur have to pay a penalty of between 10,000 to 50,000 yuan (U.S. $1,650 to U.S. $8,245).”
These monasteries will also be banned from participating in certain religious activities and have their finances audited for a certain amount of time, according to SCMP.
The ramification of such policies can be damaging to Tibet’s already poverty-stricken families and unskilled workforce.
The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) states that Tibet’s “potential to generate incomes is unfulfilled due to constraints in awareness, planning, and private and public sector capacity.” While China Daily states development in Tibet has halved its poverty rates, many of its rural communities still lack access to education and viable employment.
According to the UNDP, development often focuses on cities, rather than those who “live in rural areas and [who]lack skills compared to migrant workers from other parts of China.”
Self-immolations have decreased over the last year, yet the tension between the government and locals is still reported.
Robert Barnett, the Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, told RFA that “[t]he Chinese authorities might face fewer self-immolations among Tibetans, but trust between them and Tibetan communities is likely to diminish sharply’’ if the PRC continue to address their grievances with communal punishment.
– Angela A. Russo