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. ???????

    But they can't seem to understand this....
    Stephen Hawking: God didn't create universe

    January 4, 2013 at 9:41 am |
  2. Sonam

    China is for Chinese people.. China have their own language.. Tibetan have our own Tibetan language.. Scripture are totally different.. Tibetan have their own Culture different from the Chinese.. Tibet belongs to Tibetan.. China belongs to Chinese.. Tibetan have their own food and cuisine.. Chinese have their own.. Tibetan doesn't eat everything that moves while Chinese does.. Tibetan are spiritual while majority Chinese are not.. Tibetan believe in peace but Chinese believe in Gun n violence.. Tibetan have no army but Chinese have maximum in the world. Tibetan have maximum monks while Chinese have maximum army.. Tibetan have many monastic system while Chinese does not. Tibetan build monastery.. Chinese built military and prison camp.. Tibetan believe in conquering once own mind while Chinese believe conquering land and resource.. Tibetan are wishful people while Chinese are doubtful people.. So therefore Tibet is and should be only for Tibetan and not for Chinese.. Chinese stay in your home in china.. Don't you feel ashamed to come to Tibetan home uninvited.. Don't you feel ashamed to eat and stay for free in Tibetan home.. Don't you feel ashamed to murder innocent Tibetan..

    January 4, 2013 at 8:22 am |
    • alex2002

      When the self-exiled Tibetans start to chant:

      Tibet is for Zhang Zhung people; China is for Chinese people.
      Europe is for Europeans; America is for Native Americans.

      What a shallow and xenophobic world view!

      January 4, 2013 at 9:30 am |
  3. alex2002

    The Free Tibet propagandists claim the some Tibetans self-immolates because the Tibetans are so suppressed that they do not have another way to protest.

    Now that we do not see any self-immolation anymore, does it mean the suppression from the Chinese government becomes less? Or they have found another way to protest?

    Which way is it?

    If you want to spin it in one way, do your spin consistently.

    January 3, 2013 at 9:36 pm |
    • Maersk

      The writer is a typical American kwok zucking kwok zucker employed as writer to badmouth China. Little does he know that he is just a regenerated trash from the "Trash" that drifted accross the Atlantic. If it was up to the native Americans, he would definitely be sent back to an incinerator in Europe and not to be recycled.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:56 am |
  4. Billy

    This should give this incident a bigger picture.


    January 3, 2013 at 9:01 pm |
  5. RebeKunga

    Mr. Prothero, has somewhat redeemed himself with this latest post on the Tibetan immolations, if only slightly. However, the biggest problems with his critique, is that he lacks an understanding of Tibetan culture; and the fact that he sees the world through the eyes of a Christian. Additionally I believe he has misjudged the political conundrum faced by His Holiness. Essentially, the Dalai Lama is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. There is no appeasing China's government where the Dalai Lama is concerned. I do however agree that HHDL should, like the Karmapa, make his feelings known much more clearly. But, given that I am not privy to his private consultations with Tibetans around the world, I refrain from critique.

    In a recent article published on Phayul, and the Tibet Telegraph, Wang Lixiong, a Chinese dissident writer and husband of well-known Tibetan writer Woeser, analyzes the last words of Tibetan immolators. The analysis is an effort to understand why the immolations are occurring. One of the interesting points of his article is that international attention is not what Tibetan immolators are striving for; as is mistakenly believed by many outside observers. In fact the majority of immolators seem to be saying that, because they've realized that no one else is going to come to their aid, they have taken it upon themselves to act on behalf of their country. He quotes Phutstok, who immolated in March of 2011 and began the current wave of immolations, as saying "I cannot live to wait in vain". While Christians and non-Tibetan Buddhists may not approve of suicide, for many Tibetans, to sacrifice one's self for the greater good is considered one of the highest acts of ones life. Phutsok and many others who have followed in his fiery wake, seem willing to sacrifice themselves for the well being of all Tibetans, however misguided this belief may seem to someone from a Christian, Western background.

    The reality is that, China's government has done more to exacerbate the problem, by shutting down entire areas of ethnically Tibetan regions, forcing patriotic re-education campaigns, attacking the clergy by filling monasteries chock full of police and video surveillance, falsely imprisoning men accused of aiding and abetting immolators, and more recently offering rewards for information and threatening strict punishment on anyone involved with immolation's. China's (gov) continued refusal to look in the mirror to discover the problem; is the biggest impetus behind immolations. Prothero’s condemnation should have begun with the CCP, not the Dalai Lama. He obviously has much to learn about the complicated China/Tibet situation.

    January 3, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  6. alex2002

    Blood on Chinese hand in Tibetan self-immolations?

    Which Chinese? The Chinese peasants who perished in the hands of Tibetan rioters?

    Such vicious demonization of a whole people reflects the deep-seeded bigotry from the author. This is the main exception I have against this so called religious "scholar".

    January 3, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • ME II

      I got the impression that he was speaking about the Chinese government, that is oppressing the Tibetans, not the Chinese people.

      "The biggest moral outrage in Tibet today is the behavior of the Chinese government."

      January 3, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  7. zeon777

    Mr. Prothero, I recall reading your blog entry from last year and I was horrified by your apparent blaming of the injustice of the Chinese invasion on the people of Tibet. This does, in a small way, redeem you in my eyes.

    January 3, 2013 at 11:36 am |
  8. immolatechina


    January 3, 2013 at 10:10 am |
  9. Brainwashed Chinese Liar


    January 3, 2013 at 9:51 am |
  10. Brainwashed Chinese Liar

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHhjrRUjLe8 Bejing killed Tibet pretester

    January 3, 2013 at 9:50 am |
  11. immolatechina

    Tibet is for Tibetans as China is for Chinese.

    January 3, 2013 at 9:16 am |
    • Maersk

      dickk head, you must not have known that even the word "Tibet" itself is a Chinese pronounciation.

      January 4, 2013 at 6:52 am |
  12. Reality

    " It is true that many exponents of Buddhism, most notably the Dalai Lama, have been remarkably willing to enrich (and even constrain) their view of the world through dialogue with modern science. But the fact that the Dalai Lama regularly meets with Western scientists to discuss the nature of the mind does not mean that Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or even the Dalai Lama’s own lineage, is uncontaminated by religious dogmatism.

    Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the vir-gin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving dis-course about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries."


    January 3, 2013 at 8:33 am |
  13. Brainwashed Chinese Liar

    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 know the whole hisory of Tibet and China. What you know is Nothing ,You little brainwahsed communist ! I feel so sorry about your life in lie!!!

    January 3, 2013 at 8:19 am |
    • questioning

      and do you? do you really know it or you just heard of it from somebody else?

      January 4, 2013 at 6:17 am |
  14. Brainwashed Tibetans

    @Unfaithful world, you are such a big hypocrite! Why don't YOU go self immolate instead of cheering those brainwashed Tibetans who self combust? Yes, YOU go self immolate. We won't miss you. And there will be no 77 virgins waiting for you on the other side. Maybe you will reincarnate into an insect, a frog, a snake, or maybe a CCP member!

    January 3, 2013 at 8:06 am |
  15. Brainwashed Tibetans

    Will all Tibetans please go on mass self immolation? Then there will be no more suicidal Tibetans left, and then normal Tibetans can get on with life. And you will just help reduce overpopulation problem.

    January 3, 2013 at 7:55 am |
    • Brainwashed Chinese Liar

      You heartless brainwashed Comunist , To solve the overpopulation problem in China is to teach how to use condoms to chinese 1.3 billion people .If stll not helping then its condom propblem .Made In China condom.so you people have to buy it from other country.then i am sure problem will be solved. and start eating more babies in your land. I know chinese eat lots of babies meat. oh monster china...

      January 3, 2013 at 8:08 am |
  16. Unfaithful World

    I am from Tibet and I know the truth better than brainwahsed chinese . Tibetans Self-Immolaed becouse of their feeel desperation under the rull of communist party. we tibetans are not that foolish ...we din't get brainwahed by Dala Lama.If so then Tibetan will not follow him if he encourage us to self-immolate. We can judje who is real Dalai Lama.We have hounderds of decade of yers experince to judje him and to give faith on him. We got idea from Arab's revolution.we are same human being like you and can think like you to solve tibets proplem.China have long time habit of bleming on Dalai Lama.Becouse they have only one choice to fool other countries. Long Live Dalai Lama.FreeTibet and World Peace forever.

    January 3, 2013 at 7:11 am |
  17. Unfaithful World

    Attention...!!!!!!!!!!! ..Here so many Brainwahsed chinese who pretend like western people and then giving bad comments on Tibet and Tibetans! Beware..

    January 3, 2013 at 7:00 am |
    • Brainwashed Tibetans

      There are so many brain washed Tibetans who go self combust, while their dear dalai lama enjoys a nice meal in a fany restaurant in Paris or some other city with a celebrity. There are so many idiotic Tibetans.

      January 3, 2013 at 7:59 am |
  18. Gordon

    Chinenese government should arrest and sentence anyone who encourages self-immolation. Tibetan have their rights to seek for their prosperity, freedom of religion but self killing is guilty by both buddhist tradition and human rights. Down the terrorists who abuse religion.

    January 3, 2013 at 4:46 am |
  19. 2357

    One cannot wear Rolex, and be Holiness.
    Wear Rolex, or wear Holiness.
    One cannot wear both.

    January 3, 2013 at 4:35 am |
  20. wellBottomFrog

    i believe china is not targeting only tibet & tibetans; when tibetan monasteries & nunneries were burnt during the cultural revolution, all other religions in china were equally suppressed similarly. China's cultural revolution took place in 1966 to 1976, since then, the 'culprits' (china said it was bcos of 'gang of 4', and they were all prosecuted) i believe religious freedom is gradually restored. But even today, when the Vatican appoints a Chinese archbishop, china govt usually disagrees and suggests an alternative(of course, the Vatican does not recognise their alternate); so, u can imagine all religion is gov't 'controlled' in china, not only tibetan's budhism. As far as freedom & human rights infringements, it is not too difficult to see that all of the peoples, including hans & tibetans in china are lacking even to this day. Culture erosion is a highly debatable topic because some cultures are weaker than others, (ie, the american indians now do not have buffalos to hunt, so, a great portions of their culture relating to buffalo hunting is gone forever) and if the tibetans have some of the freedom other countries have, they maybe able to keep some of their traditions; another point is, some cultures, in my opinion, maybe not appropriate – for example, caste system, slavery, freedom to bare arms, etc. Anyways, seems to me that that the culture erosion tibetans want is religious related, but all i see ppl refer to are tibetan budhists, do you know that other religion exists in tibet? Christianity and Islam are the minor religions in tibet. They ought to be equally oppressed, but they are not burning themselves up; also, i wonder how the tibetan budhist monks treat the tibetan muslims & christians, u may find history of these minor tibetan religion groups 'oppressed' by the tibetan budhists.
    In any case, i think the whole of china needs to move to a better harmonious society, similarly, i think the tibetan budhists need to refrain from becoming fanatics, bcos 1 step away from fanatics maybe terrorists...
    As for the tibetan separatists, i think u shld wait for a time when china govt is more open & tolerant, to open a dialog for your peaceful independence.

    January 3, 2013 at 3:34 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 6:47 am |
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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.