China is a powerful country with every kind of modern weaponry – except one to counter the Tibetans who have been setting themselves on fire in alarming numbers, in protest against Chinese repression.
There is no weapon that can stop these fires from spreading, only the low-tech approach of dialogue, of easing up, of permitting freedom of religion. But the hubris of a powerful state and long habit prevent China from seeing the answer.
At least 14 Tibetans have set fire to themselves already this year, and more than 20 in the past year, as China has turned to compulsory indoctrination that the regime calls “patriotic education” inside monasteries. A large Chinese security presence has been installed in and around the monasteries. Three hundred monks were taken from a single monastery last April and detained, according to Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group. The repression has been building since protests swept Tibet in 2008, and were crushed with deadly force. The first act of self-immolation was in 2009.
With the foreign news media barred, the power of mass protests is limited. The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, told the BBC that he doubts the effectiveness of self-immolation. “There is courage – very strong courage. But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilize your wisdom.”
Wisdom is a quality the government of China has rarely applied in its dealings with Tibet. It needs to relax its repressive grip on the country, respect the religious practices of the Tibetan people by withdrawing its cadres from the monasteries, and open negotiations with the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile. China’s leadership was once able to get its mind around the need to maintain and respect the differences in Hong Kong. It needs to approach Tibet in a similar way. Fires once set are not easily extinguished.