Why Burn Yourself Alive? with Dicki Chhoyang

Dicki Chhoyang, Minister for Development and International Relations for the Central Tibetan Administration, the Tibetan government in exile, addresses the 7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for full prepared remarks.

Full Remarks

Dicki Chhoyang: Good afternoon. When I was thinking about what I would say this afternoon, the title of an article that a foreign correspondent based in Beijing wrote in just came to mind. He wrote this title to his article about Tibet after receiving Chinese government prepared material on Tibet and the title of his article was “Another Perfect Day in Tibet.” So today I’d like to tell you about that perfect day in Tibet. If you want to see the full deployment of a formidable propaganda machine by a ruthless authoritarian regime, pay close attention to China and its handling of the Tibet issue. 

The story of Tibet is a continuous stream of flagrant human rights violation resulting from 50 years of occupation, 50 years of a people struggling to survive with its distinct cultural identity. It is decades of misguided policies from political repression, cultural assimilation, economic marginalization, to environmental destruction, and a lack of religious freedom. Since 2009, Tibet has been the stage for one of the most underreported stories with a hundred and thirty-five self-immolations. As you can see on the screen, self-immolation in Tibet is the act of setting oneself on fire alive as a solitary act of political protest against the Chinese government’s policies in Tibet, asking for the return of his Holiness the Dalai Lama, and the restoration of freedom in Tibet. These 135 Tibetans represent men and women, nomads, farmers, students, intellectuals, artists, monks, laypeople. We’re fortunate that the cycle seems to be slowing down, but 135 is already too many. There’s a fundamental question which begs to be asked. Why? Why are these men and women choosing to put an end to their life so painfully? 

We’ve urged continually the Chinese government to address the root causes of these actions, which are unprecedented in Tibetan history. But instead, they’ve responded with collective punishment by forbidding friends and families, members of their community, to express condolence, to offer prayers for the deceased and making the simple act of sending information about the self-immolation to the outside world a crime. The government’s reaction to the self-immolations are arcane practices reminiscent of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when authorities could not punish the deceased, and they took punitive measures against the surviving members of their family and community even if they had absolutely nothing to do with the self-immolations. 

There’s a deafening silence when it comes to Tibet. No news is allowed inside Tibet. No news is allowed from Tibet to the outside world. Today I want to share with you some faces connected with the Tibet issue. This young boy, age 6, is one of the world’s youngest political prisoners. He went missing in 1995 at the age of 6 a few days after his Holiness the Dalai Lama recognized him as the eleventh Panchen Lama which is one of the senior Lamas for Tibetan Buddhists. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of him going missing. In 1996 the PRC admitted holding the 11th Panchen Lama. But since then, despite repeated requests by UN working groups on enforced or involuntary disappearances, Committee Against Torture, Committee on the Rights of the Child, Senior Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, calling to know more about his whereabouts to be revealed and let an independent body meet him and his family to confirm their well-being, whether or not they’re alive, it has gone on without any response. 

This slide is that of Chadrel Rinpoche who is the former abbot of Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, the Monastery of the Panchen Lama. He was the head of the search team for the 11th Panchen Lama and he was accused of colluding with a Dali Clique, which is reference to the Dalai Lama by the Chinese government and was sentenced to 6 years imprisonment in 1997. We still have no news of his whereabouts. 

Then, there’s Tenzin Delek Rinpoche who is now 64 years old. He was arrested 12 years ago in 2002 and was sentenced to life imprisonment with fabricated charges. He is someone who was known for his social and environmental activism. His relatives and students continue to appeal for his immediate release and medical parole. They have also been threatened by the authorities to suffer consequences if they continue to run the appeal. 

The last two images that I want to show you are those of two people who died as a result of their injuries while in detention. This young man that you see passed away just this past December. He died after serving five years of his fifteen year sentence for his involvement in the 2008 protests in Lhasa. As some of you may recall, in 2008, the year of the Olympics, there were over 300 protests across the Tibetan Plateau, and he was accused of having been involved with the one in Lhasa. He died two days after his prison release by the authorities. He’s not the first to die from abusive treatment while in detention. His family  and friends reported that he was almost unrecognizable with brain injuries, and vomiting of blood. 

This last slide is that of Goshul Lobsang who is from Eastern Tibet. He was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment in 2010 for his political activism. He died in March of 2014 after suffering severe beating and torture, including pain inducing injections and police detention. There are so many more stories like that. The number of detainees is increasing every year resulting from torture, beatings, denial of medical care. 

According to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, the current number of political prisoners in Tibet is estimated to over 2,000. We’re asked sometimes, why does Tibet matter? Why should Tibet matter to people like you who live so far away in Europe? Why should it matter to North Americans when this issue has nothing to do with your day to day life? Well it does. Tibet stands today as a living symbol of steadfast, nonviolent political movement for half a century over 50 years. If the global discourse on peaceful conflict resolution is to amount to anything to be a source of inspiration for generations to come and not cynicism, the first step is to demonstrate that non-violence yields results by supporting movements which embody those values. Intertwined with the human rights situation is the other reason which is that the fate of a very fragile ecosystem with headwaters of major rivers, feeding almost half of the world’s population, stems from Tibet. The environmental damage that we’re witnessing today is irreversible. 

As I tell you about the situation in Tibet I also want to share with you that there is a proposal on the table, a Tibetan proposal on the table, to resolve this current situation in Tibet. This is the official position of both the central Tibetan administration and His Holiness the Dalai Lama and I can assure you that the Chinese government will do anything to prevent you from knowing about this proposal. It will make sure that you don’t know about it or to misrepresent it. As an act of defiance against a repressive regime today I request that you take a look and learn more about the middle way approach. This is what we call the proposal that’s on the table now. It’s a proposal that is based on non-violence, dialogue, reconciliation, mutual interest, interdependence. We understand that any proposal to resolve a conflict has to take the interest of all parties involved. This proposal was prepared based on the constitutional framework of the People’s Republic of China. It draws from its regional autonomy laws and it is requesting that all Tibetans be allowed to live under one administrative jurisdiction with decision-making power in eleven areas – we call it eleven basic needs – influencing our distinct cultural identity. Areas such as language, religion, culture, education, public security and health, environmental protection, utilization of natural resources, economic development and trade, regulation on population, migration and lastly cultural, religious, educational exchanges with other countries. This proposal is an official document, it is accessible to the public. It was presented by the end voice of his holiness the Dalai Lama to the Chinese government back in 2008. It is a win-win proposal which we believe will allow dignity and identity for Tibetans and peace and stability for China. 

The issue of Tibet is not an issue between the Chinese people and the Tibetan people as the Chinese government would so much like its people to believe. We were very saddened when in 2008 the mass protests that were taking place across the Tibetan Plateau were depicted by the Chinese state media as being an inter-ethnic conflict. And to confirm this, out of the 135 self-immolations that have taken place so far no attacks took place on Chinese property or [on] individuals. When one is so determined to sacrifice one’s life to make a political statement it would be so easy to kill a person or attack property since one is due to die anyway. But no, to reflect our basic principle of non-violence no such incidents have taken place. 

Often the Chinese government when communicating about Tibet with the international community depicts the issue of Tibet as being a choice between being a friend of China and Tibet; and this is not a choice between China and Tibet. As a friend of China one can also raise the issue of Tibet because it is in China’s interest to resolve the Tibetan issue while they have counterparts, such as the Dalai Lama, who carry the moral authority and the genuine wish to find a lasting mutually acceptable solution. The Chinese people themselves have suffered so much and are also victims of Beijing’s repressive policies. And to illustrate this I was saddened to learn very recently from a young Chinese dissident who had left China the previous year that today in China there is an entire generation in their 20s who have no clue what took place in Tiananmen Square on June 4th, 1989, because the government decided that they should not know about this. People live in fear. It is collective brainwashing, collective amnesia. 

What can you do? As the United Nations, the office, the newly recently appointed High Commissioner for Human Rights, should follow up on the statement of Navi Pillay in November 2012 when she urged the Chinese government to allow independent and impartial monitors to visit and assess the actual conditions on the ground in Tibet and to lift restrictions on media access to the region. She noted 12 outstanding requests for official visits to China by UN Special Rapporteurs on various human rights issues, including one by [the] Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief. During China’s Universal Periodic Review, China’s human rights record was reviewed and the state pledged to step up cooperation with special procedures. We urge the UN to hold China accountable as a member of the Human Rights Council and live up to its pledges. Individually, our call to action is for you, citizens, to tell a friend about the middle-way approach and share the link, this link that’s on the screen right now, to the website of the administration, the website about the middle way approach. Talk about it on Facebook, on Twitter. And very importantly, tell a Chinese friend about the middle way approach. Visit our website, share its link. 

When I travel the world I am often asked: China is so powerful, do you really think you stand a chance? And I say losing hope is not a luxury we have. We often pay attention when we look at the animal world and plans, we say endangered species. Well Tibetans, with their distinct cultural identity, are an endangered species. I’m also inspired by a basic, undeniable truth, which I think many of the courageous human rights defenders who are present today will agree with, which is that we’re all meant to be free. No matter how powerful a regime, one cannot rule indefinitely through repression. We must hold on very firmly to that truth and make sure that even if we may not get to see, personally see the change, we work so hard towards that the spirit lives on with our children and their children until our objective is achieved. 

Lastly, I want to leave you with this saying which always comes to mind when we are faced with the constant effort of dictators and oppressive regimes to suppress freedom: “you can cut the flowers but Spring will still come.” 

Thank you.

7th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, UN Opening, February 23, 2015

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