Tibetan exiles from around the world have flocked to India to attend the second Special General Meeting of Tibetans, which will focus on the recent dramatic increase in self-immolations by pro-Tibetan-independence activists across China. As many as 51 Tibetans, mostly Buddhist monks and nuns, have set themselves on fire since February 2009.
Costica Bradatan argues in the New Statesman that self-immolation is not really a form of suicide:
Self-immolation has little to do with suicide. “Suicidal tendencies almost never lead to self-immolation,” says Michael Biggs, one of the few sociologists who have studied the phenomenon systematically. Self-immolation is a deliberate, determined and painfully expressive form of individual protest.
Yet, Bradatan warns, the immediate visceral horror of self-immolation should not be allowed to exaggerate the success of the process as a form of protest. Whilst there are some suicides-by-fire which result in great change, such as that in 2010 of “Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian street vendor, stroke a match that not only burned him to death, but set the entire Arab world on fire”; the vast majority of self-immolations are “unsuccessful”. Between 800 and 3,000 self-immolations may have taken place in the last 40 years, and yet only a handful of them had any political impact whatsoever. This point is especially poignant when weighed against the increase in Tibetan self-immolation:
That self-immolation, by all means an extreme and extraordinary act, tends now to become a routine form of political action is a very dangerous development.
At least so far, the Tibetan government-in-exile seems to have no new answers:
“The fact that Tibetans after 50 plus years are still protesting and in the drastic form of self-immolation clearly indicates that they are protesting against the occupation of Tibet and repressive policies of the Chinese government,” Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the government-in-exile, told reporters after Tuesday’s session.
Those who aim to lead Tibet would do well to explain why they haven’t been able to provide better outlets for their supporters’ frustrations than setting themselves on fire. Self-immolation isn’t a form of protest, it’s a form of despair.
Watch a video of the gathering here: