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. palintwit

    Fake palintwit at 1:39 pm

    January 2, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      They've started deleting posts here again. Totally disgusting.
      Palin stuff is not relevant to this article so go look at big-breasted women somewhere else, okay?
      But I feel your pain. You must have struck a nerve on the name-stealing troll who took your name.
      Just let every post stand alone. Then it won't matter, will it?

      January 2, 2013 at 2:37 pm |
  2. Gregg

    The act of self-immolation is appalling, and no perceived injustice excuses it. And yes I say perceived. Tibet is not free, it is not it's own, it belongs to China. This is the way it is. If the Tibetan people would like to live in a free country they are free to move to one.

    And before people get all up in arms about that statement, a large portion of the US was settled by people moving to a place where they could have religious freedom. Moving from a place where you are not free to one where you are is far more preferable than lighting yourself on fire.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I agree with you that the politics of Tibet are not as clear cut as the media portrays. However, the "just move if you don't like it" argument doesn't work in the modern era. To enter most countries legally today you need a graduate degree or a few million dolloars. Most Tibetans have neither.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Seriously?

      Maybe they could move to other 'freeland' and kill all indigenous population as the pilgrims did and then remember all those silly ones killed with a Tibentan 'Thanksgiving'?

      January 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Saraswati

      @Seriously, OK, now you're just making a fool of yourself. Maybe if you don't know US history or understand the very basic involved you should just keep your mouth shut as you've asked those who don't understand the Tibet situation to do.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Kunga

      Do you the real history of Tibet not that Communist created one?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 9:23 pm |
    • FG

      Tibetan people are routinely denied passports in China. The ones that try to escape over the mountains risk getting shot. Get your facts straight before you comment.

      January 2, 2013 at 9:49 pm |
  3. Seriously?

    most of the westerners who commented on Xizang/Tibet related topics had never set a foot in China, let along Xizang. Yet, they feel morally empowered to critize others on sth they barely understand. If you look at your own histories on how lands were taken from Mexicans, native Indians and other colonized places around the world, I wonder if you have the courage to reflect on yourself and do something about the noble cause you're pretending to be aligned with. Talking about hypocrisy

    January 2, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • Saraswati

      I've lived in China and I agree that most of the criticisms are exaggerated and simplified. However, you cannot say to someone, "Don't criticize me, your great, great grandfather did the same thing." No one is responsible for the crimes of their ancestors.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • formosa

      Talk about hypocracy. Tibet had been an independent nation called Tu-Fan for hundreds of years before it was conquored by Genghis Khan (not China). Interestingly, Genghis Khan also conquored China and much of Europe. Genghis Khan was clearly not Chinese at the time.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  4. palintwit

    We got a lot of snow here where I live. And snow makes me think about Alaska. And every time I think about Alaska, I think about Sarah Palin. And every time I think about Sarah Palin, I think about trailer trash. And every time I think about trailer trash, I think about the tea party. And every time I think abut the tea party, I think about nascar. And every time I think about nascar, I think about assault weapons. And every time I think about assault weapons, I think about Sarah Palin. And every time I think about Sarah Palin, I think about trailer trash. And every time I think about trailer trash, I think about the tea party. And every time I think about the tea party, I think about...

    January 2, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  5. Sam Yaza

    funny how only the monks ruling class are lighting them selves one fire, and not the slaves the used to own....

    January 2, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Seriously?

      I say it's a crime committed by Dalai Lama for calling more monks to commit suicides. I believe tibetans living in China is much better off than their counterparts in India. Of course, those 'noble' Tibentants who owned slaves always maintain a much higher living standard, thanks to their western masters who own them now.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  6. BOB

    ..how easy it is to sit at our computers and judge..

    January 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Isn't that what you just did? Good thing hypocrisy does not make a person burst into flames, eh?

      January 2, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
  7. Seriously?

    let me get this straight, Mr. Prothero –
    if someone sets himself/herself on fire due to religious fanaticism, it's ruling government's fault? Despite Chinese government's promotion of Xizang (AKA Tibeten) culture and population, Dalai Lama continues encouraging uneducated monks to burn themselves. If their invain death is putting more guilt on Chinese government's hand, I have nothing to say but would have to ask Dalai Lama to set a good example and burn himself first. Be a leader, and don't be a coward in asking others to die for your cause. Mr. Prothero, I am not sure if you would like to follow, too. I suggest you go visit Xizang and get your head out of your behind.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Is it religious fanaticism when they do it in protest of a secular injustice? No.
      But you are correct in pointing out that they personally chose to protest in this manner. To charge the Chinese gov't with the monks burning to death would not make any legal sense at all, but this is the court of public opinion and many take the monks' actions as indicative of their passion and sincerity.
      That is serious stuff to many people. Tibet is being oppressed.
      Stop the oppression and watch all the monks stop burning themselves over it.
      It's very simple. Oppression is always wrong. Always.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Seriously?

      to Fedup Delivery

      "Tibet is being oppressed"? How? Do you know as minority Tibetans you can have as many children you want without being subject to one child policy? I bet that's news to you. Can you substantiatiate your claim please?

      January 2, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • formosa

      Seriously, your vision is so narrow you failed to see the bigger picture. If things were so rosy in Xizang then Tibetans monks wouldn't have a purpose to commit suicide. Since you're a Chinese, I don't blame you for not getting the real news. In 2008 before the olympics in Beijing, China rolled in tanks into Tibet. According to the newspaper, the tanks were sent there to clean up street. Many brainwashed Chinese thought Tibetans were trash and needed to be cleaned. China does not give a damn about Tibetans. It is true that these self immolations achieved nothing and Dalai Lama should discourage such actions from his followers. But the real shame is on China.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • Seriously?

      formosa –

      your argument is flawed to say the least – 'If things were so rosy in Xizang then Tibetans monks wouldn't have a purpose to commit suicide.' People are unhappy for many reasons. We just had a killer in Connecticut shooting at children. Is this something wrong with the school, the kids or the teacher? Your argument is very weak. Seriously, you have no knowledge to speak on this matter. All you want to do is trolling on China for whatever the agenda you're on, and on that be my guest.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Seriously? – You must either be an apologist for the Chinese gov't or a fool. China's corrupt totalitarian government is famous for oppressing everyone in both China and Tibet as well as many other regions. It's all well documented and well known throughout the world.
      Why lie? You look like a bigger fool when everyone knows you're lying. Give up your worthless task and do something intelligent. You do not have the skills to post here. You fail.

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

      Seriously? I'm going to repeat this once again. PRC destroyed 99.99% of Tibetan temples during Cultural revolution. PRC also kidnapped Banchan Lama who is the youngest political prisoner in the world. Without Banchan Lama, the next Dalai Lama will not be chosen so PRC effectively destroyed Tibetan Buddhism. Whenever there are protests in Tibet, PRC sends in tanks, recently happened as recent as 2008. Put yourself in the shoes of Tibetans who valued their religion and way of life higher than their own lives, do you like what you see in Tibet? You may have visited Xizang but you're clearly not a Tibetan, much less Tibetan Buddhist.

      Your analogy on Connecticut shooting is sick.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • FG

      You are so uninformed you don't even know the difference between Tibet and Xinjiang...

      January 2, 2013 at 9:54 pm |
  8. Rundvelt

    I bet Prothero doesn't see any similarities between him picking and choosing parts of the bible and the chinese government picking and choosing parts of his article.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Since you are probably right, I won't take that bet.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  9. Nick

    So Americans took California, Texas and a bunch of other states forcefully. If Tibet is to be returned, all of these states need to be returned.

    If not, shut the f*** up Prothero!

    January 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm |
    • formosa

      Return Texas to who? Mexico? Are you even sure Mexico wants Texas back?

      January 2, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  10. steve

    If you have not been there you can not have an educated opinion.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
    • FG


      Ok so what do you think about Syria? Have an opinion or have you never been there? How about Nazi Germany- better not have any opinions at all about that because very few people alive have ever been there. And if you have never been to Iraq then you'd better not form any opinions about that country...


      January 2, 2013 at 9:59 pm |
  11. Mantismech

    Everyone needs to know the history of their own country before commenting on the deeds of other countries, e.g. California was conquered from Mexico, Texas declared independence after immigration by illegal immigrants. Almost all countries have blood on their hands; its only matter of timing.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
    • FG

      Following your logic- all actions by all governments, no matter how inhumane, are ok because 'every government has blood on it's hands'.

      Don't you believe all people should have at least basic human rights, especially in this day and age?

      Do you think it's ok for the Chinese government to torture people because of their political beliefs? Because most decent people don't think it's ok. They think it's disgusting.

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

    The human race has always blood on it's hands and we can't rinse off the last dousing before we sink our pinkies into the next act of inhumanity.
    We all live in glass houses but it's a good idea to keep this fault out in full view for all the world to see, maybe someday we'll make some progress.

    January 2, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
  13. palintwit

    Sarah Palin can learn something from these Tibetans !

    January 2, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
    • DC

      You are the real twit to be still carrying on about someone whose relevance to this issue is absolutely none.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:05 pm |
    • palintwit

      Obama can learn something from the Chinese.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
    • palintwit

      Fake palintwit again ^

      January 2, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  14. formosa

    Tibet was conquored by Genghis Khan who also conquored China. Technically it was not China that conquored Tibet.

    Cultural revolution destroyed 99.999% of Buddhist temples in Tibet. The youngest political prisoner in the world is Banchan Lama who was kidnapped by CCP and held in secret location. Without Banchan Lama, the current Dalai Lama would be the last. What you have here is a very systematic destruction of Tibetan cultural by the Chinese government. Tibetans value their culture and way of life above their own lives.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:48 pm |
    • MeCantHelpIt

      Genghis Khan didn't conquer Tibet, neither did Kublai.

      It was much later, starting in the 17th century, when the Oirats and then Junggar invaded and occupied Tibet. The Junggar was later defeated by Qing, who overtook Tibet.

      But, Tibet was never conquered 100%. Qing took symbolic ownership but Dalai and Penchan were always the religious leaders even though they were sanctioned by the Qing Emperors.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • MeCantHelpIt

      The seat of Panchan has been through history in support of the Chinese central government, so much so the then-Panchan was forced leave Tibet because he didn't fall in line with the 13th Dalai.
      The late Panchan was never kidnapped.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • formosa

      Genghis Khan died from arrow wound in the campaign to conquor Xixia. So he never participated in invasion of Tibet. But Mongols did invade Tibet later and eventually Tibet was part of the Yuan Empire, thus ending the Tu-Fan regime.

      January 2, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
  15. Uyghur Tibet

    The Chinese gov occupies East Turkistan and kills the Uyghurs, occupies Tibet and kills the Tibetans. Yet, the world watches. One day we will see westerners are also being killed in the hand of the Chinese gov as well. Chinese has got the biggist millitary in the world. May be not the strongest but the biggest.

    January 2, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • James

      Russia has that honor, not China. China is at most #5, this was around 2010 though. I doubt they became #1 in those 2 years. Considering they were 4 million total military personnel compared to Russia's 21 million.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      For Russia, they keep all those soldiers on the payroll as a form of working welfare.
      As a fighting force, the number is much smaller. Same thing with Chinese troops.
      They hand out these positions as a form of bribery and influence. They aren't very smart about it, really.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  16. wrm

    Fault? Blood? They chose to set themselves on fire. It's their fault.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:59 am |
    • Uyghur Tibet

      Yeah, they should have killed and kicked out the Chinese invaders right?

      January 2, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
    • Uyghur Tibet

      The countries in Europe killed and kicked out the Germans during the second world war. They did not burn themselves. That is the only reason that the countries in Europe are independant and democratic.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • James

      The United States kicked the Germans out for them. If Europe was left on its own they would all be speaking German now.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
  17. derp

    It's not China's fault that a bunch of idiot Tibetans lit themselves on fire.

    January 2, 2013 at 11:55 am |
    • TheMovieFan

      Re-read the article.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
  18. truth is dark

    Tibet is conquered over 600 years ago. How many years Texas is conquered from Mexico?How many years USA conquered from Indian?If Tibet independence,USA must disappear.(Repky truth be told:No.Tibet is a conquered nation. Texas is not.)

    January 2, 2013 at 11:53 am |
    • TheMovieFan

      Let me guess that English is not your first language.

      January 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
    • formosa

      Many posters on cnn are Chinese or the CCP internet police. They were brain-washed with the same propaganda and that's why you see the same flawed logic and analogies from different individuals.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • ME II

      "Conquered" or not, Texans still practice their chosen religion.
      Most often this involves guns, football (American), and barbecue.

      January 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  19. Grontius

    It really is too bad they never wiped out the Morons. Now there's more of them. They are like co<ckroaches.

    January 2, 2013 at 9:52 am |
    • Fedup Delivery

      The majority of Mormons are easily the worst group of openly traitorous people inside our borders, along with some other religious people.
      They are "domestic enemies" of our country, yet they are citizens. They commit many crimes, yet they have rights as citizens.

      But yes, it would have been much better had all the Mormons perished before establishing their little theocracy in Utah.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  20. Saraswati

    When I lived in China I saw just the opposite – special schools set up around the country to support continuation of the native cultures. Minority groups were universally exempted from family planning laws. I visited dozens of Buddhist temples each surrounded by large developments set up to support the continued flow of visitors – and protected by government policies. Sure, there's a political action here – an effort to maintain control over the lands of Tibet. But don't make this into anything it isn't. It's the exact same action the US will take if Texas attempts to secede.

    January 2, 2013 at 8:45 am |
    • truth be told

      No.Tibet is a conquered nation. Texas is not.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:25 am |
    • Grontius

      Oh, we kicked the hell out of Texas and the rest of the South last time they tried to secede. What a bunch of tards.

      January 2, 2013 at 10:28 am |
    • James

      Texas is conquered land from Mexico. It just has been ~160 years.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:08 pm |
    • Pig in a Poke

      Ummmm, could we really just give Texas back to Mexico? That would be awesome.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • Pig in a Poke

      Hell let em' secede, then we can close their borders. LOL

      January 2, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Before any state in the union could even think of seceding, they would have to either pay many trillions of dollars$$$ to the USA to compensate us for parting with the land in such a dangerous proximity to the USA, or the people could just move to Africa, easily take over any small country, and experience the wonderful freedom they so desire.

      But that land is OUR land and you can't just secede without paying the heftiest price we can lay on it.
      We don't want a foreign country attached to our borders with such a pile of hostile idiots running around inside of it.
      So many things would have to happen first before it could even be seriously considered.
      Just sayin.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
    • palintwit

      I'd be more than happy to give California back to the Mexicans. Well to be honest, it looks like they've already taken it back.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Seriously?

      kudos for you to see the reality and state the truth. For whatever the agenda those idiots have, facts are distorted. This artical is no coincidence – US budget is cut; these liars are cheating their way into getting US tax payers money to promote more violence and death of illy informed young monks.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Fedup Delivery

      Seriously?, that didn't even make sense. You should work harder on studying American English language structure or get better soft-ware. Or just check your grammar before you post.

      January 2, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Pathetic Humans

      i have to say you are the only wise man here

      January 2, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
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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.