Another Tibetan Nun Goes Up in Flames, While Chinese Tourists Holiday on the High Plateau

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A local walks by a bridge where Tibetan monk Tsewng Norbu, 29, set himself on fire on August 15, in Tawu, Sichuan province, China, October 28, 2011. (Photo: Shiho Fukada for TIME)

And now, it’s 11. On Nov. 3, a Tibetan nun set herself on fire in a remote Tibetan-inhabited county of China’s Sichuan province called Tawu (or Daofu in Chinese), according to exile Tibetan groups. Nine Tibetan monks (or former monks) and two nuns have self-immolated this year, the despairing acts of a people who contend their very way of life is being threatened by Tibet’s Chinese rulers. The 35-year-old nun named Palden Choetso was the second Buddhist cleric to commit ritual suicide in Tawu. The first, on August 15, was a 29-year-old monk named Tsewang Norbu, who drank kerosene and lit a match to his body in Tawu town. Like Norbu, Choetso reportedly called for Tibetan freedom and the return of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, before succumbing to the flames.

Last week, I visited Tawu to report on the increasingly nihilistic protests coming out of Greater Tibet, a region that encompasses Tibet proper and parts of four other Chinese provinces—Sichuan, Qinghai, Gansu and Yunnan. (The story is here.) Much of the Kardze (or Ganzi) Tibetan autonomous prefecture area was under a security lockdown, and my colleagues and I only dared enter Tawu at night because of the heavy police presence. Other foreign journalists who visited Ngaba (or Aba), the neighboring prefecture where seven Tibetan clerics have immolated themselves, were detained and hassled. But even under these less than ideal reporting conditions, it was easy to see just how frustrated Tibetans are about China’s oppressive rule, which has only gotten more heavy-handed since the 2008 protests that erupted across the Tibetan plateau.

Monks I met in Kardze painted a stark picture. Tibetan society was under attack, they said, and, even if the self-immolations contradicted Buddhist vows against the taking of life, the situation was so desperate that desperate measures were needed. “Our culture, our language, it’s all being taken away from us,” one senior monk told me, as a picture of the Dalai Lama, whose public display could technically land someone in jail in China, stared out over him. “If we don’t fight back, all that will be left of Tibet will be some monks.”

The burgundy-robed cleric spoke to me in a prayer hall filled with flickering yak-butter lamps, and in walked a few tourists from China’s Han ethnic majority, with whom Tibetans have long had an uneasy relationship. They had on their shoes. The monk asked the Han visitors to remove their footwear upon entering the sacred space, to which they politely complied. For some spiritually starved Han, Greater Tibet has in recent years turned into popular religious pilgrimage site, as if the lofty heights of the plateau somehow denote a purer form of Buddhism than that practiced at lower altitudes.

After decades of being taught that communism (with the totems of Marx and Mao) and later consumerism (with the almighty yuan currency, emblazoned also with the Chairman’s face) would nourish their souls, many Han Chinese are searching for more spiritual sustenance. Just like American tourists descending on Sedona to recharge and connect with their inner life (and maybe buy some Native American turquoise trinkets), Han Chinese tourists head to the Tibetan plateau to bliss out and meditate (and maybe buy some Tibetan turquoise trinkets).

But as the Chinese government jails thousands of Tibetans, sends many more to patriotic education classes and regularly denounces their beloved exiled leader, the crush of Han tourists in Greater Tibet can induce a bit of queasiness. Yes, yes, I get it: there’s plenty of hypocrisy in Americans visiting Native American sweat lodges long after the U.S. government helped exterminate the country’s indigenous population. But two wrongs—one American, another Chinese—don’t make a right. Besides, I can freely describe the horrifying treatment of Native Americans by my government in a way that Chinese living in China cannot write about the current Tibetan situation.

In the Kardze prayer hall where I sat in front of a warming brazier, the yak-butter lamps lit up golden Buddhas, but they also shone on piles of donated Chinese banknotes all carrying Mao’s visage. (The Chinese leader had presided over the near complete annihilation of Tibetan monasteries during the Cultural Revolution, including the destruction of the rebuilt monastery I was now sitting in.) On most of the Tibetan religious sculptures in the prayer hall were signs explaining each figure’s significance. Nearly all the placards were in Chinese, not Tibetan. The monk said that Tibetans didn’t need any explanation; they already knew who was who. Fair enough. But it still felt strange to be in a Tibetan Buddhist prayer hall with little Tibetan writing in it— and in which a high-ranking monk passionately railed against the brutality of the Chinese government.

But such dualities exist when it comes to Tibet. While in Dharamsala—the Indian hill station where the Dalai Lama, has lived in exile since 1959, when he escaped Tibet after a failed uprising—I ran into a lot of Han Chinese pilgrims. What were they doing in a town that was basically ruled by the man Beijing likes to call “a wolf in monk’s clothes?” The Han were there, in fact, to get blessings from high-ranking exiled Tibetan lamas, including the young Karmapa, Tibetan Buddhism’s third-ranked monk who escaped Tibet more than a decade ago. In his reception hall in Dharamsala, I met a group of Han Chinese who were busy stuffing wads of Indian rupees into donation envelopes. One woman had been to Tibet three times and spoke of the purity of Tibetan Buddhism. She told me of her last trip to Tibet, after the 2008 riots and how the massive police presence made her feel safe. “Tibetans like the Chinese because we build roads, do business and bring development,” she said. “When I first went, Tibet was very backward. But society has advanced a lot because of Chinese influence.”

It’s true that the Chinese government has raised Greater Tibet’s standard of living dramatically from 1950 when People’s Liberation Army troops first began marching across the plateau. But Tibetans complain that many of the best local jobs and access to the region’s biggest mineral caches are monopolized by an influx of Han migrants. And as the same senior monk told me, “The Chinese government gives us economic development, but that is not enough. The most important thing for Tibetans is our spiritual life. If the Communist Party tries to take away our faith and our culture, we will fight.” The battle is intensifying, one burning monk and nun at a time.