A Tunisian street vendor set himself on fire last year – an act that many credit with sparking the Arab Spring, which led to the ousting of tyrannical leaders Moammar Gadahfi (Libya) and Hosni Mubarak (Egypt).
But in the Ngaba region of Tibet, where a dozen young monks immolated themselves, life has become even harsher. China has reportedly subjected the remaining monks at Kirti Monastery to endure torture, near-starvation conditions and constant monitoring.
In addition, the monks have been forced to stomp on photos of the Dalia Lama (the Tibetan spiritual leader and Nobel Prize Laureate who visited Minnesota in May), cut up their scriptures and listen to endless "patriotism" lectures designed to make them Communist Party loyalists.
This is the story told last week by Kirti Rinpoche, the head of all Kirti monasteries in and out of Tibet, in testimony before the U.S. Congress’ Commission of Human Rights.
"Tibetans do not even have half the rights that ordinary Chinese do," he said.
After the hearing, he flew to Minnesota, where I met with him between his gatherings organized by the state's Tibetan American Foundation. Speaking through an interpreter, he said the monks’ immolations spoke of the desperate conditions for Tibetans in China.
He wouldn’t rule out immolating himself some day.
But since nonviolence is fundamental to Buddhism, I wanted to know how Rinpoche reconciled the teachings with the self-immolations, a point of debate among Tibetans globally. After all, if Tibetans destroy themselves, haven’t the Chinese won?
"The self-immolators sacrificed their own bodies with the purist of motives – to help the Tibetan people," he said. They hoped that by calling attention to the human rights abuses, the world would intervene and make life better.
China invaded Tibet in 1951, which led the Dalai Lama and others, including Rinpoche, to flee to India, where they established a government in exile. China claims Tibet is their land; Tibetans want autonomy and religious, cultural and other freedoms.
In 2007, President Bush bestowed the Dalai Lama with the Congressional Gold Medal, America’s highest civilian honor, calling him a "universal symbol of peace and tolerance," adding that "Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away."
Sadly, President Obama has seemed more concerned about not offending China, America’s largest creditor. He declined to meet with the Dalai Lama in 2009 and did so this year only after international pressure.
Afterward, the ever-diplomatic Obama spoke of the importance of building a "cooperative partnership" between the U.S. and China and preserving Tibetan culture.
But for that to happen, the human rights abuses must stop.
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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.
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