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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. Andy

    I visited Tibet and didn't really see any of these so called atrocities. The economy is booming there and the Chinese are investing tons of money developing the place. I saw plenty of Tibetans running businesses, going to temples, etc. A quick search finds that over the past 50 years the population of Tibetans has increased many times, the poverty rate there is falling, the literacy rate is increasing, and overall environment is improving. I did meet some Tibetans who expressed some really Nazi like hatred for Chinese and wanted them gone. It seems for extremist its always "my way or the highway"

    BTW. A quick can find that Tibet has been a part of China since the Yuan Dynasty in 1260AD, thats over 750 years ago. Much longer then the US has hold of what was once Norhern Mexico (Calforinia, Southwest, Texas). And no, the Chinese didn't conquer Tibet. Tibet formed an alliance with the Mongols to conquer China. In the Mongolian social order, Mongolians and Tibetans were elites, then westerners, and Chinese were the lowest. Ever since, Tibet has been an administrative unit of'China much like any province of China. Sure during part of history, WWII, parts of China fell out of control, but control was always restored in later times -> See the Ming, Qing dynastys which came after the Yuan Dynasty. You would not Guangzhou is not part of China, because they lost control of large parts of it to European countries would you?

    January 3, 2013 at 2:43 am |
    • Troll_Identification

      China's Paid Troll: Meet the WuMaoDang (50 cent Party member)

      January 3, 2013 at 3:13 am |
    • Unfaithful World

      I know you are Chinese got already brainwashed by your communist rull.You don't know much about Tibet's real problem .Thats why you are totally wrong with your opinion. You don't know how you chinese goverment discriminate between Hun and Tibetans.You Don't know what goverments secret operations in Tibet.You don't know about humanright in Tibet. You don't know how many Tibetans were killed secretly in prison. You don't know that Chinese medias are useless for Chinese well educated peoples. you don't the hole hisory about Tibet and China. What you know is Nothing ,You little brainwahsed communist ! I feel so sorry about you life in lie!!!

      January 3, 2013 at 6:49 am |
    • Unfaithful World

      How you have been in Tibet ??No foreigner can go inside Tibet except Chinese because chinese were already got brainwashed so goverment dont need to worry about them. Once you got brainwahsed you are then have same good ear like chinese and same bad mouth like chinese.Liar thats it ! Little knowledge is dangerous!!

      January 3, 2013 at 6:55 am |
    • Saraswati

      @Unfaithful, Foreigners most certainly can and do go to Tibet, though it is not particularly easy.

      January 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  2. Gazza

    A lot of talk about "atrocities" in this pathetic biased hit-piece, but no substantiation, or even a discussion as to what events these "atrocities" are. Additionally, the claim that the ChiComs burnt thousands of monasteries and "nunneries" is a blatent fabrication and no such thing has ever happened. Do Buddhists even have nuns? I've lived in buddhist countries for 6 years and have never seen a female monk, and I doubt they exist. Is this a case of a white western christian imposing his own preconceived ideas on his audience, and makng up facts to suit his agenda?

    January 3, 2013 at 2:22 am |
  3. realbuckyball

    I wish the Chineese would bring back the emperor and the all the eunuchs. That woiuld be a fun job.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
    • A year in Tibet

      ya...bring back Dark Ages to western countries, where religion rule everything

      January 2, 2013 at 11:56 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      have you eaten today? can i eat you?

      January 3, 2013 at 12:42 am |
    • devyn

      Mr. Stephen Prothero, before you reach any conclusion, please go to Tibet to see what's happening there. Please don't just sit in your office and write some nonsense words.

      January 3, 2013 at 12:45 am |
  4. A year in Tibet

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=videoseries&w=640&h=390]

    January 2, 2013 at 11:46 pm |
  5. A year in Tibet

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BA8eXDLVNTU&w=640&h=390]

    January 2, 2013 at 11:36 pm |
    • A year in Tibet

      Where is the "cultural genocide", "ethnic cleansing"?

      January 2, 2013 at 11:43 pm |
  6. mparts

    If the Dalai Lama is what he says he is, then he would defiantly go back to Tibet and let himself be arrested. It would create international pressure on China to let him go. Also, China can't kill him because that would be political suicide. For this reason I think the Dalai Lama is a coward and has no real interest in his people or his culture. Leaders always face their enemies and the Dalai Lama has yet to do that.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:30 pm |
  7. Bluehound

    Mind your words please.......say "Chinese Government", not "the Chinese"..... Please do not mix Chinese communist regime with ordinary Chinese people.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      why no one dose it for Americans

      January 2, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      Like the chinese who say "Tibet was always China", those Chinese or different chinese?

      January 3, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  8. Sam Yaza

    interesting factoid did you know the Dalai Lama was not only a slave owner he is a homophobes and a Nazi sympathizer

    [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1SROS-WGJQ&w=640&h=390]

    January 2, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      have you eat today? Can i eat you?

      January 3, 2013 at 12:43 am |
    • End Religion

      Thanks for sharing but that was a lame hit piece. It has nothing to do with the current DL. Religion stinks but there's no need to pull tactics like this.

      January 3, 2013 at 4:27 am |
    • Unfaithful World

      I know you are Chinese got already brainwashed by your communist rull.You don't know much about Tibet's real problem .Thats why you are totally wrong with your opinion. You don't know how you chinese goverment discriminate between Hun and Tibetans.You Don't know what goverments secret operations in Tibet.You don't know about humanright in Tibet. You don't know how many Tibetans were killed secretly in prison. You don't know that Chinese medias are useless for Chinese well educated peoples. you don't the hole hisory about Tibet and China. What you know is Nothing ,You little brainwahsed communist ! I feel so sorry about you life in lie!!

      January 3, 2013 at 6:57 am |
  9. ZHANG

    隔岸观火

    January 2, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
  10. Lord Byron

    China has complete freedom from information.

    January 2, 2013 at 10:46 pm |
  11. dumpling5232

    If you want to know the truth,You should go to Tibet.Instead of cnn !

    January 2, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • CZ

      agree

      January 2, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      I would but I can't Chinaman, The Chinamen have locked it down.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  12. Victor

    Is this really from a professor in a real college?

    January 2, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      I would say the same of any chinese professor

      January 2, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  13. XUXUXU

    美国世界上最人渣的国家,专杀其他国家的百姓,会有报应的

    January 2, 2013 at 10:05 pm |
    • Saraswati

      Really...you live a very sheltered life.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:10 pm |
  14. XUXUXU

    AMERCIA IS BIGGEST KILLER.Mercy of their own, others kill

    January 2, 2013 at 10:03 pm |
    • Saraswati

      You might want to look up "tu quoque" as both logical fallacy and just bad form in discussion. As a tip, failure to understand the debate principles learned by your average high school student just means no one will take you seriously.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:09 pm |
  15. Laurence

    Mr scholar, what you have said has seriouly violated the facts. The self-immolation of monks in Tibetan is provoked by Dailai Lama evily. what's more, what you have said that the Chinese Government carries out a culture genocide in Tibetan is not ture. As a religion scholar, you should be impartial and your views should based on the enormous investigations. I advise thay you could have a look to go to Tibetan.

    January 2, 2013 at 9:56 pm |
  16. indix

    Dalai Lama is taking 'the part-time job' as CIA monk that explains everything.

    January 2, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      does not explain the abuses of tibet!

      January 2, 2013 at 10:51 pm |
  17. Lord Byron

    Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, is now in jail. Harassed and tortured by the State. He once said " Someday China will be a free and a democratic country". We do hope he is right and then we will see China let go of Tibet and also permit greater representation and freedom to its own people.

    January 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
    • jackinbox

      Your kind just don't get it do you? A democratic China will be a lot more aggressive, a lot more hostile to outside. Just like a democratic Egypt, a democratic Libya are now, and a democratic Syria will be.

      January 3, 2013 at 1:52 am |
  18. 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 8:59 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Kunga,

      I am a closeted Christian in that I believe our bodies are sacred buildings and the true temples of God's sons and daughters who live very deeply inside us in a religious realm of dimensioned being. We all should do more to keep one's godly building of our bodies safe from harm done or in doing for or against other temples of embodied godliness.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
    • gaz

      So sorry to hear that you suffer that much, but I still you response some of my disagreements.
      Any kind of killing, suicide or murder are top first taboo of Buddhlism doctrine, a master who sees through the world definitely won't act as Dalai Lama did, the fundamental essence of human right is to respect very human being's life, if you think self-immolation is the only way left to appeal, you can't get everybody agreed with you. Speaking of human right abuse in Tibet, though Tibet is one of the top civilized and democratized regions in the world, I believe people in Tibet and other parts of China don't have relatively equal, fair system or platform to get their voice heard by the world, to get their problems that are appealed to be solved effectively and pragmatically, the negligence of progress of human right's improvement in Tibet and other parts of China is too annoying to let people trust the viewpoints from Caucasian who sits in office all day and presents opinions vastly based on the knowledge about Tibet, absorbed from the western papers and words from minority of extreme Tebetan separatist. Do they know what life looked life before CPR's taking over of Tibet, have you heard any description of old life of Tibet form your old grandma or grandpa, if you didn’t, plz do so. I just know Tibet is the very last region which left being ruled by theocracy, it is the very last region which has peasant salves existing, the situation only stops until 1950 as PRC took over, white folks, plz imagine what your life looked like at same time. Do you know who the leader of that era is? It is Dalai Lama, It is him who did tolerate the situation where all Tibetan suffered, who did nothing to alter, It is extremely ironic that Dalai is awarded Nobel Peace Prize of which purpose is to award people who strive for more human right in non-violent way. Besides of what conflicts he has done with PRC at price of thousands of Tibetan lives over the issues such human right abuse, culture extinction, I never see his other qualification of Nobel. But I have to say Chinese government not only abuse Tibetan but also every single Chinese citizen in term of human right if judging from the position or level where your democracy develops to. But I must honestly say it is improving, even it is slow though. You should know that Tibetan does enjoy better social welfare then Hans, their children got 50 points advantage at our National Universities Entrance Exam, the pay much less tax when they do business, so on and so forth. For culture extinction, I honestly never saw the evidence of burning down of temples or other facility, but what i know is Tibetan Buddhism is very popularly spread through China. Even Jet Li is a devout follower of it. If somebody would like provide authentic facts of culture extinction, I love to study.

      January 2, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  19. Lord Byron

    China has an excellent record on inhuman rights.

    January 2, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  20. Pathetic Humans

    2008 is the turning point for most well educated Chinese.The hypocrisy and shameless of the west propaganda was so poorly displayed on subjects related to Tibet and Olympics that in the past, they trusted English websites like CNN, BBC,etc; since 2008 they came to realize that those were nothing different from CCTV. Out of patriotism and most importantly, angry of being cheated, they began to make fun of CNN, there is a phrase coined rightly after 2008 Tibet Unrest, which is quite popular for some time. It may be translated as " Don't be too CNN!", which means acting properly and honestly instead of making fabricated stories in order to achieve one's purpose. Therefore, everytime CNN pubishes anything related to China, i would simle instantly, coz i know what the content is, which shares the same China bashing as most of west media. As long as there is something goes wrong, in Tibet, SCS, or ECS, it must be China's fault. And China is always the bad guy. I don't even bother to finish the whole reading. I see the ending before the author's done with his work. The Americans are as brain-washed, if not more serious, than Chinese.The only difference is that, US has done this brain-washing thing more professionally and in a more subtle way. As far as this is concerned, I do believe that US is way ahead of China, and China should learn to employ this tactic in time.
    Also another thing about trolls, CIA is no better than GCD, personal view. That's all. I have to pee.

    January 2, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • lapaganda

      Can't agree you more.

      January 2, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Saraswati

      US and Chinese media are both biased, like media everywhere. The only difference is that in the US you can view a variety of different biased media to get a wider picture. In China that media is blocked as soon as it is too far from the officially accepted view. And yes, I have lived in both the US and China.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
    • ho hai

      pathetic hummane is a chinese communist dog

      January 2, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      well you pay to say that chinaman. Im chinaman noodle. You likey?

      January 2, 2013 at 10:52 pm |
    • Chinaman noodle

      lapaganda, you eat today? can i eat you? We eat together? We can eat chinaman noodle.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:53 pm |
    • gaz

      So sorry to hear that you suffer that much, but I still you response some of my disagreements.
      Any kind of killing, suicide or murder are top first taboo of Buddhlism doctrine, a master who sees through the world definitely won't act as Dalai Lama did, the fundamental essence of human right is to respect very human being's life, if you think self-immolation is the only way left to appeal, you can't get everybody agreed with you. Speaking of human right abuse in Tibet, though Tibet is one of the top civilized and democratized regions in the world, I believe people in Tibet and other parts of China don't have relatively equal, fair system or platform to get their voice heard by the world, to get their problems that are appealed to be solved effectively and pragmatically, the negligence of progress of human right's improvement in Tibet and other parts of China is too annoying to let people trust the viewpoints from Caucasian who sits in office all day and presents opinions vastly based on the knowledge about Tibet, absorbed from the western papers and words from minority of extreme Tebetan separatist. Do they know what life looked life before CPR's taking over of Tibet, have you heard any description of old life of Tibet form your old grandma or grandpa, if you didn’t, plz do so. I just know Tibet is the very last region which left being ruled by theocracy, it is the very last region which has peasant salves existing, the situation only stops until 1950 as PRC took over, white folks, plz imagine what your life looked like at same time. Do you know who the leader of that era is? It is Dalai Lama, It is him who did tolerate the situation where all Tibetan suffered, who did nothing to alter, It is extremely ironic that Dalai is awarded Nobel Peace Prize of which purpose is to award people who strive for more human right in non-violent way. Besides of what conflicts he has done with PRC at price of thousands of Tibetan lives over the issues such human right abuse, culture extinction, I never see his other qualification of Nobel. But I have to say Chinese government not only abuse Tibetan but also every single Chinese citizen in term of human right if judging from the position or level where your democracy develops to. But I must honestly say it is improving, even it is slow though. You should know that Tibetan does enjoy better social welfare then Hans, their children got 50 points advantage at our National Universities Entrance Exam, the pay much less tax when they do business, so on and so forth. For culture extinction, I honestly never saw the evidence of burning down of temples or other facility, but what i know is Tibetan Buddhism is very popularly spread through China. Even Jet Li is a devout follower of it. If somebody would like provide authentic facts of culture extinction, I love to study.

      January 2, 2013 at 11:38 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.