Since the 1950 Chinese invasion that ended with the forced integration of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, Tibet has been simmering. It has boiled over more than once, most notably for the first time in 1959, when uprisings swept through the Tibetan plateau and the current Dalai Lama fled to exile in India, as well as in 2008, when the unrest spread to the Tibetan diaspora.
And now, Tibet is burning. The first Tibetan to self-immolate was sixty-year-old Thupten Ngodup, who sacrificed himself after Delhi police carted away Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) hunger-strikers in April 1998, preventing them from starving to death as they had promised to do. Stepping into a public toilet, Thupten doused himself in gasoline, lit himself on fire, and then emerged back onto the site of the “Unto Death Hunger Strike,” flailing, jumping, and eventually, bringing his hands together in prayer, all within a raging inferno of flame. He died in a Delhi hospital after a personal visit from the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
But Thupten’s radical deed was soon forgotten outside of Tibetan activist circles. Then, over a decade later, on February 27, 2009, a monk named Tapey became the second Tibetan to self-immolate, sparking a chain reaction of self-immolations that has gained momentum over the last three years. At time of writing, forty Tibetans, including Thupten Ngodup, have self-immolated in protest of China’s rule over Tibet. After a long gap between Tapey’s self-immolation and the subsequent one, that of a monk named Phuntsog on March 16, 2011, the self-immolations have occurred closer and closer together, and many media outlets have remarked that the phenomenon shows no signs of stopping. The latest one, by a Tibetan from Amdo named Tamdin Thar, occurred less than a week ago.
Some have remarked that self-immolation is a radical departure from Tibet’s protest approach for the past sixty years, which for the most part has followed the Dalai Lama’s mandate that the Tibetan cause remain nonviolent, in line with the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, and pursue a “middle way” course. Even discounting the uprisings of 1959 and 2008, both of which turned violent and resulted in the deaths of Tibetans and Chinese, however, Tibetan protest strategies have not always followed completely nonviolent methods. Hunger strikes, often with the intent of fasting until death, have been a tactic of the TYC for decades, resulting in varying amounts of success.
This past February, the TYC launched an “Indefinite Fast for Tibet” in front of U.N. headquarters in New York that lasted for thirty days. It finally culminated on March 23 when the U.N. promised to send investigators into Tibet. The three hunger strike participants, Shingza Rinpoche, 32, Dorjee Gyalpo, 59, and Yeshi Tenzing, 39, had stayed true to their word, eating nothing and drinking only water for the entire month. By the time the hunger strike was called off, Gyalpo had been sent to the hospital, where he continued to refuse food. The strike may have ended months ago, but the words of the President of the Tibetan Youth Congress Headquarters in Dharamsala, Tsewang Rigzin, ring on:
The Tibetan Youth Congress strongly calls on governments of this world and the United Nations to heed to the demands of the Tibetans suffering in Tibet. If you do not take the responsibilities to sincerely uphold the universal fundamental rights of human beings, you become willing accomplices to China’s inhumane crimes towards Tibetans. If you do not take immediate actions to help douse the burning flames inside Tibet, you become accountable to every growing casualty within the Tibetan population.
The following portraits of the New York hunger strikers and New York Tibetan Youth Congress president were shot by photographer Luke Townsend in the early days of the hunger strike. Their biographies and statements of purpose are on the following page.
His Eminence 11th Shingza Rinpoche
His Eminence 11th Shingza Rinpoche Tenzin Choekyi Gyaltsen was born on January 15th, 1980, in Bongtag area of Tsongon region, Tibet. His Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized him as reincarnation of 10th Shingza Rinpoche when he was thirteen years old; afterward, he joined Ragya monastery in Golok, Tibet.
Rinpoche fled into exile in 1997 and joined Sera monastery in South India. His Holiness the Dalai Lama granted him a Geshe Degree (M.Phil) in 2011 after completing all his studies in Buddhist philosophy.
In 2008, he took part in the “March to Tibet” organized by five Tibetan NGOs. Thereafter he voluntarily led “Return to Tibet,” a secret mission to Tibet organized by 60 monk activists.
To preserve and promote the unique Tibetan language, he has started organizing annual Tibetan National Poetry Recitation contest to create interest and pride in Tibetan language among young Tibetans. He is a staunch advocate of Tibet’s Independence and a freelance writer who has authored two books in Tibetan titled Lewang Marpo and Gerchod. Rinpoche is also the founder and editor or www.wokar.net, which is widely popular inside Tibet among Tibetan writers and scholars.
Statement of Purpose:
Recently inside Tibet, there were 23 self immolations, mostly by Buddhist monks and nuns. Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959 China has killed many hundreds of thousands of Tibetan people and I’m on hunger strike here to draw the United Nations intervention in terms of the situation inside Tibet.
The Tibetan people have truth on our side, which means historically Tibet was an independent nation and has to regain its independence. With the Chinese occupation of Tibet they have destroyed our natural resources and implemented many different policies inside Tibet to destroy the Tibetan nation and the Tibetan people. It is high time that the international community truly stand up with the nonviolent struggle of the Tibetan People.
Dorje Gyalpo was born on March 5th, 1953, in the Kyidong Pang-Shing region of Tibet. He escaped to Nepal in 1960. In 1965 he moved to India and went to school in Lower Dharamsala (Sur Sod Lopta). After, he went to Central School for Tibetans in Kalimpong.
He served as an Executive member of RTYC Mainpat in 1978. He came to the United States in 1992 to Massachusetts under the US Tibetan Resettlement Project and moved to Minnesota in 1993.
His inspiration to participate in this campaign comes from a speech by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to him and other members migrating to the United States in 1992 when he said that they are the representatives of six million Tibetans. He has always been an active member of Tibetan Youth Congress and participated in many events. He is a current member of RTYC Minnesota where he currently resides.
Statement of Purpose:
The whole world knows the situation inside Tibet is very critical. I’m here to appeal the United Nations to send a fact finding delegation to Tibet and also to allow international media inside Tibet. The United Nations should pressure China to stop the so called Re-Education Campaign. Inside Tibet right now for every 1 Tibetan there are 100 Chinese police, army, or other military personnel. The hope of the Tibetan people inside Tibet is the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet and to regain Tibet’s independence. They want democracy inside Tibet.
When China invaded Tibet they built airports, roads, and railroads, none of which truly benefit Tibetan people. It’s all for their own purposes, in order to mobilize their army whenever they see fit. China has their own motivations, which is to destroy the Tibetan nation. Inside Tibet right now they are arresting a lot of young people who are being imprisoned and tortured. When their bodies become useless, they throw them away. It is because of all of the Chinese suppression why we have these self immolations. That is the height of the nonviolent struggle, to burn oneself to death. That is all we can do. It’s our last resort as a nonviolent struggle.
Mr. Yeshi Tenzing
Mr. Yeshi Tenzing was born on March 15th, 1973, in exile and studied at CST Dalhousie. He served as President of Regional Tibetan Youth Congress Herbertpur for two consecutive terms from 2004-2007 and 2007-2010. He has been an active member of the Tibetan Youth Congress and has participated in many of its campaigns in India.
Statement of Purpose:
I want to let the world know to not be fooled by what China is showing in the front, the reality is what’s in the back, inside Tibet. It’s not just the propaganda by the Chinese government.