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Dec 14, 2012 | 11:01 GMT

6 mins read

China: Unclear Motives Behind Tibetan Self-Immolations

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Many of the nearly 100 self-immolations that have occurred in Tibetan areas of China since March 2011 have been attributed to a form of protest calling for a "Free Tibet" and the return of the Dalai Lama. However, it has not been confirmed that all who have lit themselves on fire did so for this purpose. These unconfirmed motives, combined with the inconsistent reporting in Tibet, raise questions as to the bias behind the reports and whether some of these individuals used self-immolation as a means of suicide unrelated to political matters.

The majority of the most recent self-immolations in non-Tibetan areas of China have been in protest of Chinese government regulations. One such protest occurred in November 2011, when three brothers set fire to themselves to protest the demolition of their home. A more recent example occurred in September, when a man lit himself on fire after a central Chinese school refused to enroll his son. 

Though non-Tibetans in China have used self-immolation, the most prominent and recent instances of this practice have occurred among ethnic Tibetans since March 16, 2011. Most Tibetan self-immolations in the past two years allegedly have been carried out to protest Chinese rule, but in numerous instances the motive was to protest a different cause or was unknown. One such instance occurred June 27, when a Tibetan woman in Yushul, Qinghai province, reportedly self-immolated during a protest held by 70 local families against Chinese state land confiscations. Thus, not all of the self-immolations in Tibetan regions of China can be attributed to protests of Chinese rule over Tibet.

Nature of Protests

The use of self-immolation as a protest tool is only successful when the act is carried out in a fairly populated area to ensure that the message is heard. However, not all of the self-immolations reported in the Tibetan areas of China have followed this guideline, raising questions as to the real intent behind some of the self-immolations. At least 11 of the reported self-immolations took place under circumstances far from ideal for spreading a message of protest to a wider public.

One of the most recent examples occurred Nov. 22, when a 23-year-old Tibetan self-immolated near a river in Kanlho, Gansu province. This act of protest was reported by a human rights group, which claimed there was not a single witness to the act. The isolated nature of the event is drastically different from other reported self-immolations by Tibetans who shouted slogans for a Free Tibet in towns' main markets or squares. This self-immolation does not appear to have been a protest because it is counterintuitive to stage a protest where no one sees the act.

Tibetan Self-Immolations

Tibetan Self-Immolations

Another self-immolation under atypical circumstances for a protest took place Nov. 7, when a 23-year-old Tibetan mother of one set herself on fire in Malho, Qinghai province. She siphoned petrol from a motorbike to set herself on fire in her family's winter pasture. Like the Nov. 22 example, this self-immolation occurred in a remote and isolated location, indicating that the motive for this suicide probably was not political protest. Moreover, unlike other self-immolations reported by human rights groups, this report did not state that the actor was chanting Free Tibet slogans — something seen in nearly every human rights organization report of self-immolations carried out in protest of Chinese rule.

Disparities in Reporting

When evaluating reports and details of self-immolations, it is important to look at the source of the information because different sources have different biases and agendas. Most reports of Tibetan self-immolations in China come from Tibetan and human rights activist groups. These groups often cite members of the Tibetan government-in-exile, unnamed sources and Tibetan human rights activists as the sources of the incident details. Alone, these reports cannot be taken at face value, because publicizing, embellishing and even inventing stories of injustice and acts of protest in Tibetan areas of China would benefit these activist organizations.

Although the details human rights groups have reported about the self-immolations are questionable, it can be confirmed that self-immolations among Tibetans are occurring because Chinese state news agency Xinhua has corroborated many of the instances. In terms of the details, human rights groups are quick to state that the self-immolations were acts of protest for a Free Tibet, whereas Xinhua has never named a cause for the actions. Instead, Xinhua often provides no explanation at all, attributes self-immolations to family or personal matters or states that the Dalai Lama is ordering the self-immolations to destabilize Tibet. The Chinese government has its own agenda, which benefits from discounting ethnic tension and acts of protest in Tibetan areas. 

One of the only ways to discover the truth in each reported self-immolation is the evaluation of the few corresponding details reported by both sides, particularly when evaluating the self-immolations that could have been a form of suicide rather than a protest of Chinese rule. Stratfor scrutinized and chose the 11 self-immolations that do not bear the hallmarks of a political protest based on the details provided by both activist groups and Xinhua. That human rights groups rather than the Chinese government gave these details makes the reports more credible and political protest a less likely motive for the self-immolations. Moreover, due to the heavy censorship of media in Tibet and lack of details available about many of the 95 self-immolations since March 2011, it is plausible that more than 11 of the reported self-immolations are not characteristic of demonstrations against Chinese rule.

Patterns of Suicide in Tibet

Reliable statistics and information regarding the general pattern of suicides among ethnic Tibetans in China is not available, making it difficult to measure tendencies toward suicide in the area. However, it can be assumed that suicides do occur in the Tibetan-inhabited areas of China without political motivation, as they do elsewhere in the world. It is possible that some of the nearly 100 people who have self-immolated in China's Tibetan-populated regions in the past two years had been contemplating suicide and chose self-immolation because of their knowledge of other Tibetans who died in the same manner. This is referred to as copycat suicide.

One type of copycat suicide is a point cluster — when the frequency of suicides increases in a certain location and time. This occurs when news of suicides spreads through a local area. For example, 11 of the 26 self-immolations that took place during November occurred in the Malho prefecture of Qinghai in northeastern Tibet. Clusters are common in the pattern of Tibetan self-immolations.

In addition to the point cluster pattern, it seems as though the number of suicide-based rather than political protest-based self-immolations is increasing. Of the 11 self-immolations that do not share characteristics with typical protests, six occurred after Nov. 1 and all have occurred in 2012. This could indicate that Tibetans are using self-immolation as a means of suicide without political motivation more frequently as the general knowledge of self-immolations becomes more widespread among Tibetans.

Although there are many unknowns in terms of the motivation for many of the reported self-immolations, it is clear that not all of the ethnic Tibetans who have set themselves on fire are blatantly supporting the Free Tibet movement, and not all self-immolations are occurring in locations that would garner public attention.

Instead of eliciting concessions from China, the string of self-immolations has spurred a harsh crackdown on ethnic Tibetans. However, China has tempered its crackdown to avoid triggering a larger and more violent revolt such as the one seen in 2008. Despite the lack of political and cultural influence the self-immolations have had on the Chinese government and its policies, self-immolations by ethnic Tibetans show no sign of stopping. As the acts continue, more evidence will unveil the underlying motivations for these acts and show how many are meant as a way to air grievances against Beijing. 

China: Unclear Motives Behind Tibetan Self-Immolations
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