TibetProtests News Update, 23-29th September 2013

In this week’s Update:

To open and print the download in full, click here: Weekly Report 24.09.2013

Tibetan Self-Immolation and “Intentional Homicide” in Chinese Law

The accelerating waves of self-immolation amongst Tibetan communities have been the subject of growing international attention over the last few months, as the world press wakes up to a story that refuses to go away. With the focus largely on the sheer number of self-immolations, an increasing number of media outlets and pro-Tibet groups have begun to present the self-immolations as though they were the defining tragedy of Tibet, something which in large part overshadows the policies and conditions which actually motivated these actions in the first place.

As though as a reminder of this, another story has built momentum in the background, noticed in passing by most dedicated Tibet news-sites, but rarely discussed in detail. It is a development that may ultimately prove of equal, and indeed, greater historical significance than the self-immolations: that of the increasingly tortuous reaction of the Chinese state in legal terms.

‘Intentional Homicide’

Chinese state media and legal experts have worked hard over the year not simply to address the problem of Tibetan self-immolations, but to suppress public sympathy with self-immolators and their cause. But this is rendered more difficult by the very esteem in which self-immolators are held by Tibetans, who regard them as gyalché pawo, “patriotic heroes” to the growing movement towards ethnic unification amongst Tibetans in the wake of the 2008 protests. Over the last two years, both the Beijing government and its affiliated media have learned the hard way that personally villifying self-immolators simply further aggravates an already alienated population.

One of the answers to this puzzle on the part of the Chinese legal establishment has been to distinguish between acts of self-immolation themselves and those that are seen to encourage, aid or abet them. Since most self-immolators die from their wounds, and those that do not are usually hospitalised for months (in many cases, such as Tapey, disappearing), there have been no trials of actual self-immolators yet. This is no doubt convenient, since such trials would be the subject of intense scrutiny and (most probably) large scale public protest, and even in the present febrile international climate, there is little to be gained politically- and potentially much to be lost – by publicly trying badly burnt and crippled individuals whose primary ‘crime’ was to inflict bodily harm upon themselves.

By contrast, since late 2012, legal and media organisations in the PRC have announced that collusion in self-immolation (however understood) could lead to charges of the “intentional homicide” of the self-immolator, who is thereby presented as the victim of the actions of more widely connected others. Op-eds in state-run media organs have persistently portrayed self-immolators as naive, deluded and easily led by senior figures (usually linked to the ‘Dalai Clique’), and as deeply regretting their actions. This is a view which has been replicated at the state law level by applying the category of “intentional homicide” to any action which supports, aids, abets, or encourages self-immolation. In December, the English-language People’s Daily reported:

‘China has launched a new regulation to curb self-immolation after several Tibetans burned themselves to death over the past months, Gannan Daily from Northwest China’s Gansu Province reported on Monday. The new regulation was said to have been drafted by the Ministry of Public Security, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, which pointed out that people who in any form plan, organize, incite or help others perform self-immolation will be tried for intentional homicide. The regulation also stipulates that people who burn themselves in public places will be charged with a public security offense and those who parade a corpse through the streets or gather to watch the immolation without actively stopping the suicide will also be subject to criminal prosecution. “To incite and help others commit self-immolation is in essence a criminal act depriving people of their lives,” reads the regulation. Xu Zhitao, a director of the United Front Work Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, told the Global Times on Tuesday that many of the people who perform self immolation have been brainwashed and lack basic judgment.’ (Self-immolation instigators may face homicide charges, People’s Daily Online, 7 December 2012)

This principle has been applied to cases of Tibetan self-immolation since at least December, with the suspended death sentence of Lorang Konchok and the sentencing of his nephew Lorang Tsering to 10 years in prison in late January. Xinhua reported this case and its verdict as follows:

“The two incited and coerced eight people to self-immolate, resulting in three deaths, the Intermediate People’s Court of the Tibetan-Qiang Autonomous Prefecture of Aba found. Of the eight people, three set themselves on fire and died in 2012. They were identified as Lorang Tsedrup, Tsenam and Jokba. The other five people did not self-immolate, after willfully abandoning their plans or after police intervened, the court found. Lorang Konchok, a monk in Aba’s Kirti Monastery, maintained long-term and close contact with Samtan, a member of an overseas “Kirti Monastery media liaison team” — a “Tibet independence” organization, according to the court. After the self-immolation of a Kirti Monastery monk named Tapey in 2009, Samtan asked Lorang Konchok to collect and provide information related to self-immolations in Aba. Lorang Konchok used his status as a “geshe,” or a high-level Tibetan religious scholar, to convince monks and others to self-immolate, the court found. Lorang Konchok sent information regarding self-immolations to Samtan. The information was used by some overseas media as a basis for creating secessionist propaganda, according to the court. Lorang Konchok and Lorang Tsering convinced eight people to self-immolate, constituting the crime of intentional homicide, according to the court’s verdict.” (China Sentences 2 Tibetans Over Self-Immolations, Xinhua, 31 January 2013)

The defendants in this case were detained as far back as August 2012, but the legal logic of their criminality was only announced in December, implying at least in part that the full rationale of “intentional homicide” was still being fully formulated.

Lobsang Kunchok (right) and his nephew Lobsang Tsering stand trial over inciting self-immolation, on 26 January 2013. Source: http://www.tibetsun.com/news/2013/01/31/china-sentences-two-tibetans-for-inciting-self-immolations.

Lobsang Kunchok (right) and his nephew Lobsang Tsering stand trial over inciting self-immolation, on 26 January 2013. Source: http://www.tibetsun.com/news/2013/01/31/china-sentences-two-tibetans-for-inciting-self-immolations.

‘Connective Tissue’

Xinhua‘s description highlights the relationship – indeed, the equation – in Chinese legal thinking between abetting a self-immolation and spreading information about it. This moves the focus to what David Shambaugh has referred to as the dangerous “connective tissue”[1] which elevates protests from “internal” localized complaint to “external” systemic dissent. What for Tibetans are a series of heroic individuals and in some cases intellectuals are for the Chinese authorities a hierarchical web of overseas influence:

“An investigation shows that all the incidents are connected to an overseas Tibetan separatist group. It is a so-called “Tibet independence organization” spearheaded by the so-called Tibetan government-in-exile, with the Dalai Lama as its spiritual leader. The members of the group committed the crime in China under a foreign mastermind, and the information they passed on abroad through overseas media had a negative impact.”(Dalai Clique Manipulates Self-Immolation in Gannan. CRIEnglish.com, 7 Feb 2013)

This emphasis – on the “connective tissue” that is seen, correctly or incorrectly, to link self-immolations either together or to “secessionist movements” (here meaning the Tibetan Government-in-Exile) and “imperialist forces” (either external governments or increasingly simply the international media) – explains certain rather perplexing features of China’s legal responses to the Tibetan self-immolations. The first is that the crime of “intentional homicide” can apparently be committed after the event: thus, the same source above reports how:

“On August 7th, a 26-year-old Tibetan woman named Trakhutso set herself ablaze and rolled on the hillside northwest of the White Tower in Hezuo City, Gannan Prefecture, as she murmured, “Let me die. Let me die.” Chophel, a monk from the Hezuo Monastery arrived at the scene after hearing the news. But he offered no help; instead, he took some pictures of the burning woman.

“She was still alive at that time. She could breathe, but couldn’t talk. I took some photos with my mobile phone and uploaded four photos to WeChat in total.”

The four pictures were exactly what some foreign media used in their reports on the incident. Choephel has since been arrested on suspicion of intentional homicide.

Dolkar Tso. Source: http://tibetburning.tibetanyouthcongress.org/photos7.php

One of the photos of Dolkar Tso (Trakhutso) uploaded onto the internet by Choephel. Source: http://tibetburning.tibetanyouthcongress.org/photos7.php

There seems little evidence to suggest that not helping Trakhutso (also known as Dolkhar Tso) was the substance of Chophel’s crime (or those police that, for example, shot and beat Tapey when he self-immolated would presumably be grossly culpable under the same law). His crime, rather, lay in taking and uploading photographs of Dolkhar Tso’s burnt body onto the WeChat server. In other words, he seems to have been charged with intentional homicide for something done after the self-immolation itself. Similar arrests have been recently made when Tibetans have been caught with photographs of self-immolators on their mobile phones, and the Chinese authorities have, since the beginning of January, been confiscating satellite dishes across eastern Tibet.In other words, it is connectivity that renders these events seditious in the eyes of the state. This is more than simply the wish not to look bad in the eyes of the international media, but rather a sense that systemic protest breeds a political consciousness that is large enough to present an alternative to that of the state. In this sense, the legality and illegality of actions that surround self-immolation are more than a simple legal matter, but rather a constitutional one, and in many respects the political future of China’s troubled relations with Tibetans rests upon it.

[1] David Shambaugh, China’s Communist Party: Atrophy and Adaptation, (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2008) p 32.

Tibetan Self-Immolation: The Larger Chinese Picture

Chinese self-immolator in Tiananmen Square, 2001.

Chinese self-immolator in Tiananmen Square, 2001.

Much of the discussion about the morality of Tibetan self-immolations has revolved around its connection (or non-connection) to Buddhism. More perceptive writers have concentrated more on the role of self-immolations within a newly emergent Tibetan nationalism. All of these are sensible questions, but they avoid a larger one: what place does self-immolation have within the People’s Republic of China as a whole?

The answer to this question is intriguing: and it is this – really, rather a large one.

Suicide in the PRC has long been a subject of sociological concern. At nearly 300,000 suicides a year, and 2.7 million attempts, China has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. This suicide rate has increased dramatically over the last thirty years, a rate closely linked to the prodigious economic growth of the new Motherland. Statistically, the majority of these suicides are married women in the rural heartlands of China, drinking industrial fertiliser in lonely kitchens. Nonetheless, China’s higher level of suicide is apparently unrelated to any equally significant level of depression, schizophrenia or other mental malaise.

Rather, suicide rates in China seemed to have spiralled in response to the profound economic changes that have occurred over the last three decades. This is particularly the case for self-immolations which, unlike Tibet, have a long history in mainland China, dating back at the very least to the 15th Century. While Tibetan lamas like Sopa Rinpoche had to seek deep into the Jataka Tales, penned long before Christ, to find moral precedents for self-immolation, recent Chinese history is littered with it.

And such suicides are not merely the desperate acts of the crazed few; they are the increasingly angry and defiant response of the alienated many to a new economic order far beyond the control of ordinarily citizens. In 2003, the Beijing authorities created an exception to the general legality of suicide in the PRC by banning suicide in the sacred paving stones of Tiananmen Square. Such suicides – many of which involved self-immolation – had grown common enough in the Square to warrant special training amongst its attendant police forces.

Tiananmen suicide 1

Members of the People's Armed Police carrying fire extinguishers in Tiananmen Square.

Members of the People’s Armed Police carrying fire extinguishers in Tiananmen Square.

The official state narrative of such protests links them to renegade movements, such as the Falun Gong self-immolations of 2001, or dismisses them as the product of mental disorder. Those in Tibetan areas are labelled – by both the Chinese government and Tibet activists – as motivated by ‘splittism’ or Tibetan nationalism. However, a wide variety of human rights organisations link such protests to the burgeoning power of economic forces within the Peoples Republic. Human Rights Watch Asia reports “a rising tide of complaints by people around the country” at the combination of rapacious property development and weak judicial protection:

“Residents in many cities say the process of “demolition and eviction” (chaiqian 拆迁)is arbitrary, marred at all levels by a lack of due process for those evicted from their homes. They point out that China lacks basic property rights protections, so homeowners are just as vulnerable as renters to sudden eviction with minimal compensation. Many point to widespread corruption and other deep-rooted conflicts of interest in local government that tie the interests of powerful developers to those of local officials. China’s weak judicial system also frequently fails its citizens in this matter. Evicted residents have tried to seek redress in the local courts, but many find that courts refuse to hear the cases because of pressure on judges and lawyers by local Communist Party officials. In the rare instances when a court finds in favor of residents, their homes are likely to have already been demolished. Some have even complained of yeman chaiqian (野蛮拆迁) – “savage” or violent eviction by hired thugs, wrecking crews and bulldozers that maim or kill residents while clearing sites for new construction.”


The scenario is all too common: whether in the cities or deep in China’s rural heartlands, Chinese citizens (who have no legal rights to the land on which they live, which ultimately belongs to the state) find themselves suddenly evicted by large development companies, either demolishing old housing to make way for the burgeoning middle classes, or mining the Chinese hinterlands for the basic resources needed to fuel the factories of the East coast. In many cases, these are the very lands and houses that were once confiscated during the communist collectivisations of the 1950s and 1960s, to be returned in the economic liberalisation of the Deng Era. What the high communism of the twentieth century took from them, so too does the high capitalism of the twenty-first.

For many, the combination of economic and legal powerlessness leads to only one course of action. On September 10, 2010, three members of the Zhong family doused themselves in gasolene, set light to themselves and threw themselves from the roof of their house in Yihuang county, Jiangxi after being confronted by 40 police officers and local officials demanding their eviction from the house to make way for new developers. Even the family’s endeavour to petition in Beijing was blocked by local Party officials. In many cases, people return home to find their houses gone and no legal recourse to get back what was lost. For some of these, they only have enough money left to take the long journey to Beijing and Tiananmen Square, where they air their grievances in fire and death. As the Asia Times correspondent Li Yong Yan commented of the affair:

“A public suicide is usually committed to make a public protest over the way the government treats the individual and/or general public. The recent strings of public attempts in Tiananmen are proof enough. Without exception, they are hopeless victims of forced eviction from their homes. Developers, backed by local governments, never talk to the homeowners about a fair agreement. Instead, the developers talk through bulldozers. Powerless against the wrecker’s ball, the owners turn to the courts, which turn them away. Then they go to the people’s government, which never responds or, if it does, sends police to disperse the protesters. With nowhere else to turn to, they show up in Tiananmen Square, with a bottle of gasoline.” (Li Yong Yan, “Beijing Tries to Snuff Out Public Suicide, Asia Times, Oct 29, 2003)

This story of economic development and loss is found in Tibetan areas as much as anywhere else in the PRC. In 2010, after a devastating earthquake destroyed much of Yushu Prefecture, subsequent months saw similar patterns of redevelopment at the cost of local Tibetans. The subsequent April, 300 Tibetans occupied the main urban intersection in Jyekundo township at what they saw as the unequal land redevelopments in the area; many injured and arrested in the subsequent crackdown by the Peoples Armed Police. On June 27, 2012, Dicki Choezom, a Tibetan mother of two, self-immolated in protest at the forced confiscation of her property by state-backed land developers. Three months later, Passang Lhamo, a 62-year old Tibetan grandmother from Jyekundo, journeyed to Beijing and set light to herself in Tiananmen Square.

The unfolding story of self-immolation in Kham and Amdo is clearly a Tibetan story, and has many dynamics unique to Tibet: not least the many issues of religious control and the growing marginalisation of the Tibetan language. We should not, however, lose track of the larger picture, in which the story of modern Tibet is intimately entwined with the massive economic redevelopment of the Peoples Republic as a whole. In this sense, it is one chapter in a larger book, not about the battle between communist tyranny and capitalist freedom, but about the relationship between ordinary people and a world increasingly beyond their control.

“The leaders of this world have no right to talk about peace, freedom and equality. The twenty-first century only belongs to violence and economic might. The twenty-first century is a century shrouded in darkness” (Pochung Dondrup Lhadar, Vice-President of the Tibetan Youth Congress)

Democracy and Tyranny: On Tibetan Exiled Responses To The Self-Immolations

Jampal Yeshe's Funeral, Main Temple, Dharamsala, March 2012

Jampal Yeshe’s Funeral, Main Temple, Dharamsala, March 2012

Tibetans in exile have been universal in their valorisation of self-immolators within Tibet. This much is clear. While there may have been debate as to whether self-immolation is a violent form of protest (one that has been almost entirely resolved), their designation as rgyal ces pha bo (pr. gyalchey pawo), or “patriotic heroes” has been secure from 2009 at least. More controversial is the role of self-immolation outside Tibet, and particularly within democracies such as India. Certainly, self-immolators such as Thubten Ngodup and Jampal Yeshe are highly revered and received the equivalent of state funerals in Dharamsala, but the question of whether such actions were required under democratic governments has divided Tibetan exiled organisations. The Central Tibetan Administration (until recently, the Tibetan Government-in-Exile) made the following announcement in Spring 2012.

“The CTA would like to reiterate that as Buddhists, life is precious. In the long-term interest of the Tibetan cause, we urge Tibetans to focus on secular and monastic education to provide the necessary human resources and the capability to strengthen and sustain our movement. We once again remind Tibetans to refrain from drastic actions. While Tibetans inside Tibet live under the repressive system imposed by the Chinese government, with no space for conventional means of protest such as demonstrations, hunger strikes, etc. Tibetans living in the free world have freedom and space for conventional means of protests which should be utilised to the fullest. Therefore, the Central Tibetan Administration reiterates its appeal to all Tibetans and Tibet supporters to express their solidarity through activities which are peaceful, legal and dignified. We urge everyone to remain calm in light of the latest emotionally-charged circumstances.” (Statement by the Press Office of the Central Tibetan Administration, 27th March 2012. Source: http://tibet.net/2012/03/27/cta-deeply-saddened-by-self-immolation-incidents/, accessed 12/05/2012.)

By contrast, the Tibetan Youth Congress took a different line, arguing that the democracies of this world had so failed Tibetans and the Tibetan cause over the last half-century that such protests were a global necessity. In interview with the author, Pochung Dondrup Lhadar, Vice-President of the Tibetan Youth Congress, argued forcefully that oppression was not limited to the PRC, but was a growing facet of the world order, whether democratic or otherwise:

“The leaders of this world have no right to talk about peace, freedom and equality. The twenty-first century only belongs to violence and economic might. The twenty-first century is a century shrouded in darkness … Those who choose to self-immolate do not do so on a whim, on the spur of the moment. They think about it at length, they make a firm decision, and make plans. They decide to do this for the good of the nation and the good of all of those around them. If someone chooses to self-immolate, therefore, those who share the same cause as them should not stop them or try to save them, because in doing so they deny the fundamental reasoning that caused them to choose this action.” (interview with author, 31/3/2012)

The difference between these two views is effectively that of a political generation, bridging the divide between the Cold War discourses of the late 1980s- which divided the world into capitalist libertarian democracies and communist dictatorships – and a generation of Tibetans who feel deeply let down by the post-Cold War consensus: that the needs of the globalized economy is the fundamental moral value of modern politics, a value which has, arguably, overturned the status of the Tibetan cause on the international stage.