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

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  4. Henry Song

    Not a fan of the Beijing government, but this isn't about the government anymore. This is about the history and the truth. You guys keep talking about "invading" Tibet. May I point out that Tibet was already part of China's territory as early as the Mid 13th century? You also says something like "cultural genocide"? Seriously, have you ever been to Tibet or even been to China? If you haven't, please go to the bank and exchange a 100-RMB note. Look the note, you'll find the language of Tibet on it. See? Tibetans are free to speak their language, perform their religious rutuals. We don't have any problem with that. If you mean providing them with more education oppurtunities and giving them more economical favors are "invading their culture", then most countries in the world are doing the same thing to their own less developed regions.

    Dalai Lama is a liar. He wants anything but freedom. During his regime in Tibet, he was actually carrying out slavery. Now he figures that the word "freedom" would definitely earn him sympathy world-wide, he suddenly becomes a "fighter" for freedom. So don't even expect Tibet to be a better place with Dalai Lama being there.

    Now enough talk about China, let's talk about US history. Hmm, can anyone here tell me how many states the United States had when it first established? 13? Perhaps. But now? 50? Mexico has something to say I guess? Cultural genocide, huh? Aemrican Indians, they also have something to say perhaps.

    January 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm |
  5. ZHANG

    Dalai requires despotism instead of freedom. Tibetan folks are seduced to give the subsidy from government to him and his accomplice. He bewitched his believers to act the self-immolation to gain sympathy from you people. China has many issues and most of us try to figure out a way. You keep complaining and condemning while we are living our lives. So, mind your own business!

    January 6, 2013 at 11:07 pm |
  6. Rabten

    I think you seriously needs more introspection into the actual reality of the Tibet issue and the sensitivity of writing about it,
    Some of your point are really questionable.. you need to study more on the Tibetan Self Immolations both from the Buddhist perspective and from the political perspective..

    January 5, 2013 at 11:47 am |
  7. Minoritythoughts

    I don't think Darai Lama calls for suecide but he , rahter stopped Tibetans to do so against China.
    You may not understand how Tibetans and other people feel from China' s attack and control.
    It's very tough.
    They are mentally unacceptable the situation made by China.

    January 4, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • alex2002

      Judging by the fact that we do not see Tibetan self-immolation recently the suppression from the Chinese government is lessened and the "situation" becomes "mentally acceptable".

      So self-immolation worked.


      January 5, 2013 at 8:15 am |
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About this blog

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.