Tibetan’s Self-Immolation Casts Shadow over BRICS Summit

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Manish Swarup / AP

Jampa Yeshi, a Tibetan exile, runs engulfed in flames after self-immolating during a demonstration in New Delhi, March 26, 2012.

The build-up to conclaves like the BRICS summit underway now in New Delhi usually generates lofty rhetoric about the shifting of global power and the emergence of a new world order. The geo-political grouping, which brings together Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, represents more than a third of humanity and the world’s most important emerging economies. These are nations marching at the forefront of the history of the 21st century. Yet this summit will be forever in the shadow of something far simpler and more elemental: the image of one man on fire.

Jhampel Yeshi, a 27-year-old Tibetan living in exile in India, set himself aflame at a protest this week against the imminent arrival of Chinese President Hu Jintao. It’s at least the 26th time a Tibetan has self-immolated this year alone, a shocking statistic by any metric. The act was followed days later by a 20-year-old Tibetan monk in China’s Sichuan province. But since Yeshi’s fiery protest took place in India — rather than in Tibetan areas of China, where most of the immolations have occurred — it was captured in full, horrifying detail by the press. His clothes and skin doused with kerosene, Yeshi ran some 50 meters streaming flames until collapsing in a gruesome heap.

(PHOTOS: Tibetans Protest Hu Jintao in India)

Yeshi died from his injuries Wednesday morning, prompting more demonstrations by Tibetans in India against what they deem the brutal Chinese occupation of their homeland. The Indian government, nervous about upsetting China, engaged in a full-on crackdown, arresting close to 300 Tibetans on an archaic colonial law that wards against such dissent. It’s not unlike the lock-down placed upon the Indian capital when Tibetan activists and their allies threatened to upset a torch relay ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On March 27, when Indian authorities arrested Tenzin Tsundue, a prominent Tibetan writer, as he was about to give a speech, Tsundue is reported to have said the following — either with irony or with depressing grace: “India gives us our strength, our confidence — India is our guru.”

India is host to some 100,000 Tibetans, but, like neighboring Nepal, keeps a tight watch on the community in order to placate China, a budding Asian hegemon and vital trade partner. The BRICS summit went on, with the five heads of state expected to announce agreements boosting credit to their own local currencies, a shot across the bow in the ongoing battle to wean the global monetary system away from the U.S. dollar. Talk will return to the growing “plurality” of what is inescapably a post-American world and the need to refashion international institutions according to these new realities.

But this will do little to dispel the sense among some analysts that the BRICS alliance is a tenuous, theatrical charade. Dreamed up a decade ago — then, it was just ‘BRIC’ — by a British economist at Goldman Sachs, this was never going to be the reincarnation of Third World Solidarity. The BRICS idea is, at best, a statement of geo-political ambition and intent; at worst, a sales gimmick parroted by Davos men and fund managers.

(PHOTOS: Tibetan Exile Sets Himself on Fire)

The main problem with the BRICS is that there’s little real common ground between its members. If not separated by geography and history, they are riven by contrasting political systems and culture. In China and Russia, the grouping is host to two of the world’s most prominent authoritarian states; with India and South Africa, it boasts two of the world’s most multi-cultural, pluralistic democracies. Amid conflicting priorities and agendas, and competing interests, it’s hard to see how the grouping can evolve into anything more than a talk shop. Parag Khanna, a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics and well-regarded “geo-strategist,” spells it out:

The simmering suspicions and even hostility between the Brics themselves is a far larger story. Russia is boosting its military investments to defend its sovereignty from, of all countries, China. India and China have outstanding border disputes that China has categorically stated won’t be resolved anytime soon. On the trade front, India has initiated anti-dumping measures against China, while Brazil has joined the US and EU in a WTO dispute against Chinese trade practices as well.

Of the many differences “simmering” between India and China, the plight of Tibetan exiles and dissidents is hardly paramount. But the sheer anguish that Yeshi’s self-immolation conveys — and how it echoes among thousands of Tibetans elsewhere — brings the shallow backslapping of the BRICS summit into stark relief. Some of the more hawkish Indian commentators are already pressing New Delhi to abandon its decades of suspicion of the once imperialist West, considering it harbors greater common interests these days with Washington than Beijing. India, writes Sadanand Dhume, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, ought to stand for something altogether different from China. That’s an argument echoed by Kapil Komireddi in Forbes:

Ever since China’s bloody annexation of Tibet in the 1950s, India has hosted the world’s largest population of Buddhist refugees fleeing Chinese rule. An estimated three thousand Tibetans arrive in India each year. Having experienced Chinese colonial rule, these Tibetans are attracted to India not because it is just another rapidly expanding Asian economy. They flock to India because it offers something greater, something that China, with all its power and affluence, does not possess: the promise of freedom.

For Yeshi, that promise rung hollow. And no summitry in cloistered hotels, protected by phalanxes of police, will redeem it.

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