Marieke ten Wolde's blog

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

Protests and self-immolations

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Chabcha 2011

Chabcha 2011

5 self-immolations in one day, 10 self-immolations in a week, 82 Tibetans self-immolated since February 2009, …

The headlines in the papers are getting more gruesome by the week. They are also getting smaller and smaller. It makes me wonder what ‘impressive’ statistics are needed to get us interested again.
In November, so far we are almost at one self-immolation a day, if it goes on like this, there will be 100 self-immolations before the end of the year. That will be news-worthy, I am sure. But after that?

That is why I was glad to see some other news coming out of Tibet this week. There have been demonstrations by students in Chabcha (Qinghai) asking for equal rights for ethnic minorities and the freedom to study and use the Tibetan language. It seems the protest was sparkled by a publication belittling the Tibetan language and condemning self-immolators. Around 1000 (mainly) students marched through the streets. Security forces, injuring about 20 students, forcefully dispersed them.  The area has been closed down for the press and all foreigners and communication has been cut. This always happens when there is unrest, so it will be very hard to find out about the situation in Chabcha now and to verify any news.

There have been many protests around the language issue, the first one I clearly remember is from around 2009. In 2010 there were protests in several towns in Qinghai (Tongren/Rebkong, Xiahe/Labrang, Machu, Aba/Ngaba) when it was announced that the bilingual education system would be changed to Mandarin only (except for the Tibetan language classes). When students were only allowed to own books with an official stamp on the front page that raised another wave of protests. All these protests were suppressed quickly and forcefully.

Also other demonstrations, sometimes successful, have taken place: against mines, hydro-electric dams, the building of a new airport (Xiahe) and the resulting loss of land and re-location of people. The official education programs at the monasteries are a permanent source of tension between the monasteries and the authorities. Corruption is also in Tibet a hot topic that people get angry about and sometimes raise their voices over.

It seems to me that the wave of self-immolations really started after the heavy crack down on the protests in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and now the suppressed anger is finding an outlet in the self-immolations. Many of the places where demonstrations took place in the last couple of years now see most of the self-immolations.

Tibet is a complex society that has gone and is going through a lot of changes and is rapidly developing into a modern society. These changes create tensions and sometimes resistance in the Tibetan society. So far the heavy response of the various authorities against any openly shown discontent, has not been calming down the situation.

Instead of sending the riot police to these students, what about sending a representative of the government to listen to them and talk with them? It has happened before, even in Tibet, and it might prevent further escalation of protests and violence into eventually self-immolations. Also the Chinese authorities should be happy with the demonstration, with demonstrators they can still communicate, once someone has taken the decision to self-immolate nothing can be done anymore.

(all photos: Chabcha, Qinghai 2011)

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Written by Marieke ten Wolde

November 30, 2012 at 17:44

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