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My Take: Blood on Chinese hands in Tibetan self-immolations
Tibetans at a protest in Taipei in 2011 display portraits of people who killed themselves by self-immolation.
January 2nd, 2013
07:00 AM ET

My Take: Blood on Chinese hands in Tibetan self-immolations

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) –China Daily, an English-language newspaper and a mouthpiece of the Chinese government,  last week published an article called “Western Voices Question Tibetan Self-Immolation Acts.”

The first of the voices quoted was mine—for a Belief Blog piece I wrote last summer criticizing the Dalai Lama for averting his gaze from the spate of self-immolations protesting Chinese rule in Tibet. "If the Dalai Lama were to speak out unequivocally against these deaths, they would surely stop. So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands," I wrote in a passage quoted in the Chinese Daily piece.

In my post, I wrote of an “epidemic of self-immolations,” noting that from mid-March to mid-July 2011 more than 40 Tibetans had set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Since then, the pace of these protests has accelerated. According to the International Campaign for Tibet, 94 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since March 2011, and the pace in November was nearly one a day.

I continue to be opposed to suicide as a political strategy, whether it takes one life or many, whether it takes place in Tibet, Sri Lanka or Iraq, and whether it is performed by Buddhists, Hindus or Muslims.

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I also continue to disagree with the voluminous e-mails I received from activists around the world attempting to justify self-immolation as self-defense, a necessary response to Chinese atrocities. I am particularly troubled by the refusal of Tibetan Buddhist leaders to denounce the political suicides of teenagers. (One of the most recent self-immolations was of a 16-year-old girl, Wanchen Kyi, who died on December 9.)

Nonetheless, it is disconcerting to see one’s words used by Chinese officials to justify the atrocities it has been visiting on Tibet for generations. So I hope any further quotations by China Daily of my writing will note that I agree with Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who called on China last week to address the “deep-rooted causes of frustration” among the Tibetan people, and to act to ensure both their political rights and the right to practice their religion and preserve their unique culture.

In the 19th century, various American political and religious leaders vowed to put an end to a minority religion and culture that troubled their Christian sensibilities. In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an executive order, stating that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” In 1884, a Tennessee preacher gave a commencement speech arguing (in the words of one witness) that the “strong arm of government should be employed to wipe from the face of civilization every Latter-day Saint in Utah, men, women, and children.”

What the world has witnessed in Tibet (when it is not looking away) is an effort to do just that to Tibetan Buddhists.

When I criticized the Dalai Lama for his silence on the self-immolations, I should have criticized the Chinese government even more forcefully, for carrying out a policy of cultural genocide in Tibet. I should have criticized President Obama as well, for failing to speak out as eloquently against human rights abuses in Tibet as he has against the ongoing atrocities in a variety of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

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I recognize that the Dalai Lama is in a difficult spot here. The Buddhist tradition he represents stands against self-killing, yet his Tibetan people are running out of ways to mobilize international sentiment to pressure Chinese leaders. Nonetheless, I continue to believe that he should speak out plainly against self-immolations in Tibet.

But that is only part of the problem. The bigger part, of course, are the atrocities of the Chinese.

As a scholar of religion, I am particularly concerned about the liberty of Tibetans to practice their Buddhist traditions, a liberty abridged when the Chinese burned thousands of monasteries and nunneries in Tibet. As a human being, I am horrified by ongoing Chinese efforts to exterminate the Tibetans’ culture and language, and to refuse to the Tibetan people their human rights, including the right to self-determination.

So quote me on my disagreements with the Dalai Lama, if you will. But be sure to add this: The biggest moral outrage in Tibet today is the behavior of the Chinese government.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Asia • Buddhism • China • Dalai Lama • Death • Ethics • Politics • Protest • Religious liberty • Tibet • Tibet • Violence

soundoff (202 Responses)
  1. Denny

    The Chinese burnt thousands of monasteries and nunneries ? That is new. Where does the author learn this from ? If that is anything near to the truth, the world would have known about it.
    I am not a communist sympathizer, I am from the freedom loving city of Hong Kong. But this claim is absolutely fabulous. I support religious freedom in Tibet as well, but I am against making up false accusations to reach one's aim.
    I am sure this claim that the Chinese burnt thousands of monesteries and nunneries will be quoted by other writers and in time it becomes established truth in the Western media.

    January 2, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • Saraswati

      The world *does* know about it...where are you? That said, the US media presentation is biased on Tibet...just less so than the Chinese media, at least in so far as contrasting views are published.

      January 2, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • wellBottomFrog

      it is true, during china's cultural revolution(1966 to 1967), all monasteries, churches, temples, nunneries were forced to close and/or burnt down. But i understand you would not know about this, bcos u were probably focused on the bigger atrocities in the cultural revolution was to relocate millions of the educated to labour camps, redistributing individual's wealth, and carried out harsh sentences to punish physically anyone who were deemed as 'un revolutionary'. There were reports of up to 20million deaths throughout china in that period.

      January 3, 2013 at 5:35 am |
    • wellBottomFrog

      sorry, i got the years wrong, cultural revolution was 1966 to 1976.

      January 3, 2013 at 5:39 am |
    • wellBottomFrog

      @Saraswati, u r right, U.S. presented the events focused Tibet. The U.S. supplied weapons & funds to Tibetans during one of their rebellion against China, but after a while,(maybe after Nixon visited China), they stopped aids, only providing propaganda support. The cultural revolution was definitely on all china peoples, not only Tibetans. The case of Tibetan genocide is very debatable, maybe because all Tibetans practice one religion or another? Anyways, i bring up these points to present the truth as i know it. Of course, china is wrong, but it is getting better, and the chinese govt is not as evil as it is depicted.

      January 3, 2013 at 6:03 am |
  2. lapaganda

    Dalai Lama uses innocent and brainwashed young children's life to achieve his own dirty agenda, be back to power! Sure he will not speak out against self-immolation, because he encouraged them to do that in the first place.

    January 2, 2013 at 7:09 pm |
    • Kunga

      How you know that Dalai Lama brainwashed to young tibetans to self-immolate to acheive his goal? first of all Tibet goal is not Dala Lama's personal goal.Its 6million innocent peoples goal. We Tibetans in tibet are not that fulish person. If a Buddha as us to secrifice our life for his goal and doing something voilent act to achieve ..then we will not have faih on him anymore. But we still have faith and belief on him because we feel our self pesperation under the communist rull. so we didt it. He is silence because of chinese good ear and bad mouth.in another reason the family members of those who self-immolated would be sad if say.Its bad and nothing good foro you and for the sake of Tibet. you have to know that we are feeling desperation and hopeless about international's unpowerful help for Tibet.

      January 2, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
  3. lapaganda

    I get it, when some one is against Unite States, he is a terrorist, when some one is against China, he is a hero...

    January 2, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • mary

      perfectly put

      January 2, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • Saraswati

      In the US if someone killed themself without hurting other people they'd just be called an idiot, not a terrorist.

      January 2, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  4. Angel Moronic

    Blood on the hands of Corporations who set up factories in China too !!!

    January 2, 2013 at 6:42 pm |
    • Saraswati

      It's only because of the economic advances China has made with those industries that they have as much freedom and as healthy lives as they do now. Things have come a long way.

      January 2, 2013 at 6:45 pm |
    • wellBottomFrog

      yeah, shame on these corporations, paying a few cents to produce goods, then, selling the goods at $10 in U.S.
      we can re-make 'blood diamond', wonder if leonardo dicaprio is available...

      January 3, 2013 at 6:27 am |
  5. Edgar Lores

    Suicide is not a political strategy. It is not suicide bombing; it is self-immolation. It is the ultimate ethical protest and statement that a man can make.

    January 2, 2013 at 5:17 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      No matter how sincere or passionate a person can be about something, that doesn't make the something true.
      Sincerity does not guarantee that a person is mistake-free in what they are sincere about.
      Dying for a cause only means the person was willing to die, not that the cause they died for was worth anything.
      Crazy people kill themselves all the time. Or didn't you think of that? Duh.

      January 2, 2013 at 5:55 pm |
    • FG

      An important thing to consider is the limited choices available to Tibetan people in Tibet. They can either a) shut up b) protest and get tortured and imprisoned by the Chinese authorities (and possibly killed) or c) self- immolate.

      The people who are self immolating are choosing this manner of protest so that they will not be tortured by the Chinese authorities. To stop self immolation there needs to be a concerted effort to stop torture as a means of social control in Tibet.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:44 pm |
  6. Ariesrising

    Ai Weiwei knows how to deal with these CCP paid trolls called 50 centers. He depicted them as an old chinaman begging on the street corner. For this crime he was thrown in prison-way to go CCP put your best artists and social critics in prison.
    I hope to one day see a free and democratic China in the meantime trolls enjoy doing something here you could never do in the PRC.

    January 2, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  7. Reality

    As noted previously:

    And we still don't know what religion Stephen P "professes" to. If he were a financial supporter of DL, DL might pay him some attention. Until then, DL probably considers the "immolaters" martyrs for the cause.

    January 2, 2013 at 5:04 pm |
  8. Ariesrising

    CCP trolls are out in force over this article. Wonder how well the CCP pays these internet trolls to push the CCP propaganda line. Fedup Delivery and Formosa it must be getting old debating the Chinese ministry of truth clerks.

    January 2, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  9. there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.

    Know your self before writing or speaking of others.
    WHAT ARE HUMAN
    Human are spirits in state of physical experience, not to be identified by their physical appearance but their way, only visible in understanding to learn one’s intentions and essence of his or her path. State of their own choice in Hinduism, in denial of fact, truth absolute Allah, as programmed in human ruh, spirit with gift of choice in a limited capacity, or Abdullah, in subordination of truth absolute Allah, source of human spirit, depending on one’s self ability to overcome his soul, desire, NAFS, worshiped as gode’s by hindu’s in hindrance to truth absolute Allah, the merciful, ordained as essence of human by pot head hindu sanatan’s, ignorant secular goon man god’s of hindu’s, ignorant human, beside human physics, race, color and creed to be the most important part of being human by any means, foundation of Hinduism racism as faith. Foundation, not being the truth, but wisdom, known as gods Isis in hindu dark ages and worshipped as Kumari, represented as third eye on hindu female fore head. Hinduism, an illegality without any limits spewed in denial of truth absolute, essence of existence to deny accountability for their Hinduism, illegality.
    Human are blessed with eye’s, but contrary to popular belief in hind, ignorance, human have no capacity to see things physically but only through spirituality, enshrined in program of his or her ruh, spirit. Eyes are nothing more than a medium, such as a scanner, a medium for a processor to recognize matter already programmed in data base, in human case, the brain. Quantified as Noor, light, or recognition to be alive or functional.
    By quantum physics, everything is dependent on dark matter or program, otherwise known as Spirit, truth of human to be in physical form. Spirit, programs appears in male body after reaching age of puberty by will of Allah, certain matter from blood of man is attracted to spirit on 125 volts. produced by function of human body, after attachment of matter to spirit, matter takes form of a sperm, a living being, transferred to woman's body to grow into human form according to spirit, program, otherwise known as seeded, not physically but spiritually way programmed. Woman has no other function in human life but to mother a child, a greatest service, man cannot do without, reason for a children to carry their fathers name. Heritage of person is physically attached to man's linage, not a woman.

    January 2, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
  10. Sam Yaza

    tibetan Ruling monk"ohh i want my slaves back" [as he pores gasoline on his head] "i don't like having to sweep my own drive way."

    January 2, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Kunga

      How you know that Dalai Lama brainwashed to young tibetans to self-immolate to acheive his goal? first of all Tibet goal is not Dala Lama's personal goal.Its 6million innocent peoples goal. We Tibetans in tibet are not that fulish person. If a Buddha as us to secrifice our life for his goal and doing something voilent act to achieve ..then we will not have faih on him anymore. But we still have faith and belief on him because we feel our self pesperation under the communist rull. so we didt it. He is silence because of chinese good ear and bad mouth.in another reason the family members of those who self-immolated would be sad if say.Its bad and nothing good foro you and for the sake of Tibet. you have to know that we are feeling desperation and hopeless about international's unpowerful help for Tibet.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
    • FG

      Tibetan people are killing themselves to express their desire to be once again reunited with their 'slave leader'...

      January 2, 2013 at 9:46 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      don't get me wrong I'm all for it if you want to rise up against it,.. but Buddha does not, so do not say you are doing it for Buddha, rise up for your selves not for a god, do not put the lama on a throne he is a monster. they day when the people rise up for the freedom i will be behind you, but to do it for your gods power and i will be in front of you. if you want to rebel,.. then rebel. it is not rebellion if you fight for another, it is only rebellion when you fight for your self.

      give Tibet to the Tibetans not the lama. otherwise your no different then the Taliban

      January 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm |
  11. Steve

    Do not be so tolerant that you tolerate intolerance. To be Pro-Tibet is to be Pro-Slavery. As a "scholar of religion" you should know that the Tibetan people are slaves of the of the Dalai Lama and his monks. Taught that their past and present lives are so lowly in the caste hierarchy that they must work their entire lives as slaves for the benefit of those on the top so they can enrich themselves in their castles, eat well and do nothing (meditate) all day. Of course, the Chinese government has its own selfish reasons in Tibet. But you should see their effort to destroy their culture the same way the US Federal Government raiding Warren Jeff's compound or destroying the Klan.

    In an ideal world, the Dalai Lama and his monks should be put in jail. Their castles and palaces turned into world-class tourist destinations and its revenues given back to the Tibetan people. The region itself should be liberated and given their own right to rule, in a democratic, modern society. Another would be to let India & Taiwan administrate it. But we don't live in an ideal world. China, for all its flaws, is better for the Tibetan society than the Dalai Lama.

    China will always be China and religious nutjobs will always be religious nutjobs. What did you expect? The real moral outrage is western bloggers misinforming their readers.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tibet

    January 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm |
    • there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.

      Religions are hinduism, corruption of truth by pot hindu sanatan's filthy goon man god's, expect nothing better from Dali lama, he enjoys and loves servitude of hindu's, ignorant s. hinduism, criminality was created to impose hinduism, racism on humanity and hind, rob and steal from humanity by few hindu's crooks, no one can change their plight in servitude of hindu crooks, but, they themselves by education in truth of human equality ordained by truth absolute, Lord God and creator of humanity. Please visit limit is the truth.com to learn hinduism criminality of hindu's crooks of Persia and Egypt against humanity.

      January 2, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • hal 9001

      I'm sorry, "there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.", but "Lord" and "God" are elements of mythology, therefore all of your assertions are unfounded. Using my Idiomatic Expression Equivalency module (IEE), the expression that best matches the degree to which your assertions may represent truths is: "TOTAL FAIL".

      January 2, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.

      Word mythology is based on word myth, an hypothesis, handy work of hindu Jew's, criminal secular, creators of religions, but truth absolute is not a myth, but a fact, nothing can exist without, what else would any one call with such a great power, nothing else but truth absolute, THE RULER OF THE WORLD..

      January 2, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I agree with most of what you say until "China will always be China and religious nutjobs will always be religious nutjobs." We do see cultures change, and just as today's China isn't the China of the cultural revolution or the Ming Dynasty, today's Tibet isn't the Tibet of 1950. The people have changed and the religion has changed. I'm not making a statment one way or the other on Tibet – I think it's complicated and I don't have the answers. But I don't think we can say to be pro-Tibet is to be pro-slavery any more than we can say to be pro-Germany is to be pro-Nazi (ok, maybe a very little more...but it's not the same).

      January 2, 2013 at 6:11 pm |
  12. LOL

    Another holier than thou American who probably don't even know the history of Tibet loud mouthing!
    BTW you do realized under the DL, there was serf-ism and slavery which was basically a theoretical society, right?

    http://www.economist.com/blogs/analects/2012/12/self-immolation-tibet

    This article above shows that the DL isn't willing to take a stance because he doesn't want to be blamed, get your facts straight! I'd say the mouthpiece here is you!

    January 2, 2013 at 3:42 pm |
  13. Abbas

    "As a human being, I am horrified by ongoing Chinese efforts to exterminate the Tibetans’ culture and language, and to refuse to the Tibetan people their human rights, including the right to self-determination." And now change tibetans with Kashmiri people.
    Do you support their freedom moment too ? or this RIGHT do not apply to Kashmiri people ?

    January 2, 2013 at 3:21 pm |
  14. Adalberto Cervantes Rodriguez

    We have all the big IT Companies and technological companies in Mexico, but we want to work like the indoes and Chinese people. They were worse than us when they started, but we have better infrastructure, also we have much better universities like UNAM and IPN, highly technical guys who can compete with the indoes and Chinese in USA easily. Indoes and Chinese are some kind of a fraud there, they have only like High School. We have more Universities in higher ranking than indoes and Chinese Universities. Besides that when I am talking about Mexican, I am considering Mexican americans, we have degrees for First world and more related with American and Latin American projects.

    January 2, 2013 at 2:22 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Wow! You sound pretty messed up. Time to take a good Chinese nap, preferably with a panda. Opium is like money. Yes. lol

      January 2, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
    • there is no other truth but truth absolute, and truth absolute is LORD AND GOD OF THE WORLD.

      Did you know, what does the word Chkano means, none other than, borne to be a surf, one can never be a free American, unless he leaves hind hindu filthy chikano, serf mentality behind.

      January 2, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  15. redsky10@rocketmail.com

    If you are American you probably shouldn't be talking about blood on anyone else hands

    January 2, 2013 at 2:20 pm |
    • Hmmm

      If your not American you probably shouldn't be telling us what to do or not to do.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:27 pm |
    • Saraswati

      A person's nationality should have nothing to do with whether he or she is free to offer an opinion on a topic and is certainly no grounds for judging the logic behind anyone's statements. With that in mind, I'd be very cautious about reading from this statement anything regarding my opinions on Tibet...believe me, you could not.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:48 pm |
  16. Christianity is a form of mental illness- FACT

    Hard to feel sorry for an idiot who sets themself on fire

    January 2, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Kunga

      How you know that Dalai Lama brainwashed to young tibetans to self-immolate to acheive his goal? first of all Tibet goal is not Dala Lama's personal goal.Its 6million innocent peoples goal. We Tibetans in tibet are not that fulish person. If a Buddha as us to secrifice our life for his goal and doing something voilent act to achieve ..then we will not have faih on him anymore. But we still have faith and belief on him because we feel our self pesperation under the communist rull. so we didt it. He is silence because of chinese good ear and bad mouth.in another reason the family members of those who self-immolated would be sad if say.Its bad and nothing good foro you and for the sake of Tibet. you have to know that we are feeling desperation and hopeless about international's unpowerful help for Tibet.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
  17. Alejandrovíbora

    The number of trolls/Chinese government agents posing as western individuals and spewing communist party PR is mindboggling.

    January 2, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      I'm pretty sure it's just one idiot doing the apologist crap. It's good for a laugh at least.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:09 pm |
    • Woodie

      I'm sure it's hard for them to resist free opportunities to distribute misinformation & propaganda. Pity we don't have the ability to do the same with their media since their internet is so heavily censored.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • formosa

      And you noticed these Chinese internet police always spew the same kind of garbage such as what we did to Mexicans and Indians as a justification of what they did to Tibet and Eastern Turkistan. The brainwashing propaganda came off the assembly line so you will see the same argument from different individuals.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
  18. rad666

    Yeah, China is really upset about you telling the world. (yawn)

    January 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
  19. steve

    It's not Tibetans vs Chinese it's Monk rule Vs Chinese rule over Tibetans. Tibetans are not setting themselves on fire ,it's Monks. Tibetans were surfs to the Monks with 1/3rd less life span than today. Today Tibetans own property they could not under Monk rule. China is quite proud of all the ethnic Chinese cultures in it's country. We should be so proud of our native people. Buddhist temples are all over the country of China. I have not much suppression there on my visits. Monks have done a great job fooling the public.

    January 2, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • formosa

      Yes Steve, and occasionally PRC will send tanks to clean the streets of Tibet, like they did in 2008 when hundreds of Tibetans were murdered.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Kunga

      you sucks litle chi get brainwashed by communist!How you know that Dalai Lama brainwashed to young tibetans to self-immolate to acheive his goal? first of all Tibet goal is not Dala Lama's personal goal.Its 6million innocent peoples goal. We Tibetans in tibet are not that fulish person. If a Buddha as us to secrifice our life for his goal and doing something voilent act to achieve ..then we will not have faih on him anymore. But we still have faith and belief on him because we feel our self pesperation under the communist rull. so we didt it. He is silence because of chinese good ear and bad mouth.in another reason the family members of those who self-immolated would be sad if say.Its bad and nothing good foro you and for the sake of Tibet. you have to know that we are feeling desperation and hopeless about international's unpowerful help for Tibet.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:19 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I also saw many monestaries in China when I was there and the special cultural schools set up by the government to preserve culture. But I saw too the biased media that reported daily on nothing but good out of Tibet. Of course life expectancy has improved in Tibet, but no more than it has improved in India and other countries over the same time, so we don't know how an independent Tibet would have progressed, especially had it developed on a capitalist model instead. To truly evaluate what impact China had on Tibet we can't imagine that it would have necessarily remained isolated and backwards, but assume that there are several routes it might have taken, some better, others worse.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  20. woodrow

    Having placed yourself on the wrong side of the argument, you could say the blood is on your hands, which I find more probable than blaming the Dalai Lama.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.