The Day That Self-Immolation Came to Tibet
February 27, 2009, was the third day of Losar, the Tibetan New Year. It was also the day that self-immolation came to Tibet. The authorities had just cancelled a Great Prayer
Festival (Monlam) to commemorate the victims of the government crackdown in 2008. A monk by the name of Tapey stepped out of the Kirti Monastery and set his body alight on the streets of Ngawa, in the region known in Tibetan as Amdo, a place of great religious reverence and relevance, now designated as part of China’s Sichuan Province. Losar is usually a celebratory festival, but it was marked by the majority of Tibetans in 2009 in silent mourning—a mourning that continues to this day. On account of the unrelenting government suppression that followed in the wake of protests across Tibet the year before, a slogan has spread secretly among the people of Tibet: “No Losar.” Tibetans had decided not to celebrate Losar, as a means of resisting Chinese rule. And continuing this resistance, Tapey’s final act would become the beginning of a series of self-immolations that have spread across Tibet and beyond in recent years.
What happened in 2008? On March 14, just a few months before the Olympic Games in Beijing, riots broke out in Lhasa in response to the violent suppression by Chinese security forces of monks’ peaceful protests four days earlier.1 The protests quickly spread throughout Tibet. Two days later, on March 16, authorities forced Kirti Monastery to fly the Chinese national flag above its main prayer hall, sparking a protest and demonstration by several thousand monks and ordinary people. The Kirti Monastery is one of the more than twenty monasteries of the Gelugpa sect of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and one of the most important inside Tibetan lands. The military police responded violently, killing more than twenty people, including a pregnant woman, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl, and a five-year-old child. This bloody day has come to be known as the “Ngawa Massacre.”
Nearly a year later, this violence was unleashed again against the victims, as the authorities blocked an annual commemorative prayer festival in their honor. Before his final act, Tapey left a note declaring that this decision left him with no choice but to set his body alight in protest. First encountering the news of Tapey’s self-immolation online that evening in 2009, I was shocked—initially, by the sheer resoluteness of his act. But reading more closely, I was even more shocked by one particular detail of the events that day: the military police had opened fire on Tapey as he was burning. According to eyewitnesses, Tapey fell to the ground after a round of gunfire and was whisked away from the scene in a military vehicle. Images uploaded to the Internet clearly show Tapey lying on the ground surrounded by sixteen uniformed and plainclothes police officers, at least three of whom are armed with guns, while another nearby menacingly brandishes a baton.
Monks from Tapey’s monastery report that gunshot wounds to his right arm and legs left him crippled. The Chinese state, however, denies that any shots were ever fired. China Central Television (CCTV), the Party’s mouthpiece, has even broadcast images of Tapey receiving generous medical care in a hospital. But behind these images of benevolent care, the truth remains that, five years after his daring act of protest, Tapey has yet to return to his monastery, or even his hometown. No one knows what has become of him or where exactly he is. Amid all of this uncertainty, one ominous fact that we can confirm is that a fellow monk by the name of Sangko has been sentenced to six years in prison for photographing and sharing images of Tapey’s self-immolation online.