Ever since I read this article a few days ago, I have been haunted by it. It’s a National Geographic news piece by Jeffrey Bartholet titled “Tibet’s Man on Fire,” and it presents the story of Jamphel Yeshi, one of the many Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in recent years to protest China’s policies on Tibet.
Here he is:
I cannot imagine what it is like to feel so hopeless, so desperate, that it self-immolation seems the only recourse.
In early October, my family visited Washington, D.C., and near the National Zoo we saw some pro-Tibet protesters. They didn’t look Tibetan but looked like aging white hippies. This small group (of four adults and two kids) marched up and down the street, chanting, “What do we want? Free Tibet! When do we want it? Now!”
I don’t doubt their sincerity, but honestly, this was a pretty pathetic demonstration. There was no intent to educate or engage anyone. They seemed to be working on the assumption that “everyone already knows about what’s happening in Tibet.”
The problem is that most people don’t know what’s happening in Tibet. There’s an awareness that the Chinese government claims sovereignty over Tibet, and many Tibetans (and others throughout the world) believe that Tibet should be an independent state.
But there’s more to it than that. And I think the Tibetans who are burning themselves to death over the past couple of years are doing because they want the world to take a closer look at what’s happening there–and maybe do something about it. Self-immolation makes the news, both in text and and in pictures. It gets attention.
Earlier this week the director of Free Tibet published an opinion piece on CNN.com that describes some of the oppression Tibetans face at the hands of the Chinese government. This is the sort of information those Washington, D.C., protesters should be trying to spread. Chants are great for rallying supporters but useless as education.