Marieke ten Wolde's blog

Documentary photography, and other things interesting enough to bother you with

Tibet Travel log 8, ´Things that happened´

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April 2012, military with fire extinguisher tied to their back patrolling the Barkhor square in Lhasa


Self-immolations are a subject that can not be discussed in Tibet. The word can’t be mentioned, so conversations go: ´you can not go there, you know, things happened´. Self-immolations can also be referred to as ´bad things´, ´sad things´, ´those things´, ´more things´. And even than, mostly hastily whispered while looking over a shoulder.

It is a little confusing that the same wording is used for protests and demonstrations, so a certain knowledge is required to understand what is meant. I would never start the conversation around ´that´ subject, but if it came up I would ask something like: ´with many people?´, which would be a protest. If the answer would be ´no, the other thing´, this would most likely then be someone who set him- or herself on fire. As a result of all the police presence, the spreading of security camera’s and tense atmosphere, the conversation would then quickly move to something else. It surprised me how quickly the feeling of oppression and control started to impact my attitude and movements as well.

As the self-immolations can’t be talked about, people in stead discuss the consequences of the ´things that happened´. They are quite open in expressing their angriness or even outrage on the ban on bottled fuel sales, the sudden appearance of fire stations and fire trucks in towns, the spreading of fire extinguishers in and near monasteries, police and army carrying around fire extinguishers, blankets and stretchers and everything to do with the increased army presence like the army driving at high-speed through villages, army vehicles honking, army trucks parked close to monasteries and army trucks on pilgrimage routes. This even further increases the tension between Chinese and Tibetans.

There are police and army station on every street corner in the Tibetan area’s, outside or even inside the larger monasteries and in almost every village. Lhasa had 400 police stations in 2008 after the demonstrations and riots, now there are 1600. In Lhasa groups of soldiers patrol the streets around the main temple (the Yokhang) with fire extinguishers on their back. It is a rather silly sight and it did not prevent two young men self-immolating right in front of the temple at the end of May. Since then another 14 Tibetans self immolated within the Tibetan regions, the last 5 in Ngaba, bringing the total to 51 self-immolations since March 2011. Not including the yet unconfirmed 52nd, a woman in Gansu province, just two days ago.

Many people are angry and there is no outlet for the anger, demonstration are forbidden and if they happen they are dispersed quickly with the demonstrators arrested. Several people expressed the feeling powerlessness and suffocation to me by gesturing a tightness around the chest and difficult breathing.

Some, and sadly it is mostly the younger people, see no other way to protest than to kill themselves in this gruesome way.


Written by Marieke ten Wolde

September 3, 2012 at 15:54

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