Tsering Tashi Self-Immolates: Protests in Tibet

Tsering Tashi Self-immolates: Mass Media and Seclusion

Gansu, China


Lirong Tan and Stanislav Nedzelskyi

Since 2009, there have been at least 118 cases of self-immolation in the Tibetan area. These are believed to be protesting policy by the Chinese government and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama (VoA 2013). We attempt to specifically trace the role of mass media, both local and global, in both instigating and popularizing these public spectacles. We also look into the architecture-inspired details of the argument, especially in tracing political-social relations in the Tibetan area, to determine reasoning for these burnings.

Tibetan Self-Immolations

We attempt to summarize our discussion on mass media in this report through this self-made video, by portraying the problem as seen by different interested parties – Chinese government, Western countries, and media (reload page two or three times for best quality):

Or click here (loads from expressions)

Music was used from an video of a symphonic orchestra performing 康定情歌-二胡-朱昌耀

Most Chinese and US sources claim the Dalai Lama to be a central figure in instigating these immolations, both passively and actively. As the religious leader of Tibetan Buddhism and the head of the exiled Central Tibetan Administration, the Lama has been long expelled from Chinese territory and is currently living in India. He condemns the policies of China in Tibet as “cultural genocide” that will cause the “eradication” of the religious freedom and cultural heritage of Tibet (AVAAZ 2012). He elaborates on his opinion with examples of less people learning Tibetan language or the lack of freedom or tolerance for Tibetan Buddhism under the Chinese government.  Lama’s numerous speeches create an image that, in a desperate situation under coercion, self-immolation is the best way to “get rid of the dictatorship and atrocity from Beijing”. Self-immolators are glorified as heroes who are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause of freedom.

monk on fire running through street

However, conflict occurs when self-immolation is broadcasted in China. We studied articles by Chinese news agencies to get a better view of.  Xinhua News Agency (2012) blames Dalai clique for “masterminding and instigating” the cases of self-immolation, which stands opposite to the ideals of humanism. The China Central Television (2013) also reports a “Guidebook to Self-Immolation” circulating on the Internet authored by Lhamo Je, a former two-time member of the Tibetan exiled government. The guide book portrays self-immolators as honorable fearless heroes and provides detailed instruction on the preparation, site choice, and recording methods. Beijing accuses the “open encouragement” from Dalai and the public opinion in China is that the “cultural” notion interpreted by the Lama is actually the unification of state and the Buddhist religion (CCTV, 2013). Historically, Tibetan people lived in feudal serfdom until Communism government took over in 1959 and the slavery came to the end.  After that, the Tibetan government – also the religious institute – lost its authority. Hence, the Chinese government and the government-backed news believe that cases like self-immolation are plots and lies to help the exiled government call the attention from westerners and be re-instituted in Tibet (Xinhua News Agency, 2012).

dalai lama
Dalai Lama

According to a New York Times article of 2010, “Tibet [is considered] to be a part of China” by the U.S. and other western countries. The White House expresses concern about the “treatment of Tibetans in China” and urges “to protect the unique cultural and religious traditions of Tibet” (New York Times, 2010). President Obama urges China to cooperate with the Lama to find a solution to self-immolation. On the other hand, some pro-China voices in Europe claim that the Lama merely fights for his own interest under the name of peace and democracy, and resent any leniency towards his ideals by the Chinese government (BBC News 2010).

Through the transition of government from 1950s till now, the Tibetan religious authority has experienced a transformation on mass media as well as architecture. From the ruler of Tibetan plateau to an outcast exile in India; from a religion that spreads out by sermon and ethnical heritage to a controversial institute fight with Chinese government via mass media; from the owner of the closed Potala palace on top of the Red Hill to the self-immolators on busy districts to catch people’s attention – the Tibetan religion has fallen from being a power in a stronghold to rebels skulking in the shadows of the Chinese regime. On the other hand, according to an Economic and Political Weekly article of 2012, the “anger” of Tibetan monks is “devoid of solidarity” because of a lack of a clear background for their thoughts and actions. The author claims that protests in Tibet were originally anti-Lama, but now similar protests urge his return. This seeming lack of loyalty to a single or well-stated belief gives us reason to question the source for Tibetan protests. We trace these to mass media and data transfer, especially the Dalai Lama’s numerous speeches (broadcasted and available to the secluded Tibetan public) and the aforementioned “Guide to Self-Immolation”.

self-immolating monk watched on by onlookers
Burning Monk

Varying and diverse ideas on such channels of information are probably what cause protests to switch backbone ideas over the span of the century. This is important because it removes the necessity for a moving idea and creates an environment for protests and self-immolations to happen seemingly ‘on their own’ – the only motivation being the desire to attract attention. Therefore, architecturally, these protests require the ‘hottest’ spots and assurance of being filmed and broadcasted. Moreover, an article by Andrew Jacobs (2012) claims that the presence of local media and broadcasting opportunities are key to motivating self-immolations. This further supports our argument – protests simply require an outlet for publication in order to happen at all.

Similar cases of self-immolation have occurred in India (Simon Denyer, 2012) and Vietnam (Jonathan Walters, 1995). Both mentioned cases and usually all cases of self-immolation relate back to Buddhism – in India and the Unified Buddhist Church in Vietnam. Both cases seem to be ‘peaceful’ protests aimed at the government’s closing of other possible peaceful protest routes. Once again, global media plays a role in broadcasting these events and they are instigated by a religious issue. Though the same happen in Tibet, our collection of articles seems to show that the Tibetan protests are less organized than those in neighboring countries. Therefore, we can further research into the lack of experience in protesting in Tibet, leading to the issues we have already highlighted – the lack of a backbone in thought and, subsequently, to the sheer number of immolations currently happening in Tibet.

The analysis of Tibetan political system reveals Dalai Lama’s intention behind all the immolations cases. The Dalai Lama lineage begins in 13s century when Sonam Gystso publicly announced that he was a reincarnation of a Tibetan Sakya monk. In 1641, the Fifth Dalai Lama was made the highest spiritual and political authority in Tibet (“History of Tibet”, 2013). From then, Tibet has turned into a society of feudal serfdom under the religion-political rule of Lamas and nobles. Three major estate-holders, which are local administrative officials, nobles, and upper-ranking Lamas in monasteries, compose the group of self-owners. At the same time, 90 percent of Tibetan population was composed of serfs (“Feudal Serfdom in China”)

In 1951, the People’s Liberation Army entered Tibet and Tibetan representatives negotiated with Chinese Communist Government, formalizing china’s sovereignty over Tibet. The Communists quickly abolished slavery and serfdom in their traditional forms. The reformation of society damages the interests of nobles and Lamas. Following an unsuccessful Lhasa uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama along with the exiled Tibetan government, flew to India. In recent years, the 14th Dalai Lama has made effort to gain the power back from Chinese Government and reestablishing Tibet in its old ways.

Regarding human rights, the serfdom in Tibet controversy has been brought up. On the one hand, Chinese sources claim moral authority for governing Tibet, based on narratives that portray Tibet as a Feudal Selfdom and a “hell on earth” prior to 1950; On the other hand, the exile government argues the term of ‘feudal serfdom’ is misused and blames the Communist Government for exaggeration of misery of Tibetan serfs.

Potala Palace, Tibet
Potala Palace, Tibet

We believe the analysis of existing Tibetan architecture is helpful on recognizing the real social structure of Old Tibet. Monastery and Manor are two types we emphasize. First, due to the theocratic background, temples in Tibet are not only the places where religious activities are held but also the center for political activities (On Palace Architectures). Along with extinction of theocratic system, Tibet monasteries turned their function back to religious centers. Second, the manor’s layout and its building type demonstrate the specific hierarchy and attachment of federal serf system in Tibet before liberation (Tibetan Agricutural Manor).

Sakya Monastery is a representative of monasteries under theocracy. It is basically constructed as the ancient defensive city (Sakya Monastery). There are two rounds of defensive walls around the monastery. The inner wall is built by rammed earth and the out-facing wall is very steep to climb on. In addition, moat and turrets are built in order to protect the monastery. Moreover, the great hall in the center of monastery is also surrounded by solid tall walls.

Monastery Plan: Big open space is Central Hall, enclosed by three defensive walls.
Monastery Plan: Big open space is Central Hall, enclosed by three defensive walls.

There’re rarely any windows on the wall. Its military defensive feature is distinctive to common Buddhist temples we see elsewhere. All these defenses are architectural reminders of the dual importance of the center hall – its political and religious meaning to the Tibetan people, while the Tibetan government was still in place.

Under theocracy, the distinction of temple and palace was blurred. Monasteries are organized according to Mandala and reflect the Buddhist world view. There are buildings in a complex that function as worship halls or reading rooms for religious uses while some are for the daily living of Sakya Trizin, the spiritual leader and political head. The monastery also borrows the hierarchy commonly used in other palaces: the center hall being the centralization of authority and supreme power of the leader and the higher floor a more dignified identity.

With the removal of a spiritual authority, Tibet lost its political powers and became subservient to Communist China. This is reflected in temples becoming solely religious centers rather than both political and social strongholds (as evidenced in the previous paragraphs). Moreover, this architectural change can be traced to the interaction between Chinese government and the now “feudalized” Tibetan people. The current lack of the traditional politico-religious center, or its conversion to Chinese standards, leaves the Tibetan people without a mediator with their new political leaders. The self-immolations of monks over the past couple of years are traced to politico-social tensions by various sources (VoA, Walters, Yeh), and we trace these tensions to the conversion of this central space from its original purpose to one neither beneficial to the Tibetans nor the Chinese government. Therefore, as both the immolations and the architecturally changes of monasteries and palaces over the past fifty years in Tibet trace back to Chinese Communist policy, it is this policy that is causing the unrest in Tibet and ought to be revised. As noted by both Andrew Jacobs and the Economic and Political Weekly, one shortcoming of the current government is the closing of all avenues for peaceful protest, much like their closing of the center halls of monasteries as avenues of communication between people and government. It should be clear, then, why these self-immolations continue to happen in Tibet.


Sakya monastery, bird's eye view. Red walls surrounded by grey defensive structures, with mountain in background.
Sakya Monastery



Simon Denyer, “Self-immolations Reflect Rising Tibetan Anger,” The Washington Post (2012), accessed September 8, 2013.

Denyer introduces to us a case similar to ours: a young Indian man named Jamyang protested by self-immolation. However, Jamyang completed his action in India, where Dalai Lama currently lives. We can compare Jamyang to Tsering Tashi and speculate on the path of self-immolation is from India to Tibet to inland China, or, from other point of view, map frequencies of these immolations and check them against political-economic data from these areas. This can give an idea of whether the practice is because of seclusion, economic divisions, or other factors.

Voice of America, “What Makes Tibetans Self-Immolate?” VOA News (2013), accessed September 8, 2013: [http://www.voanews.com/content/what-makes-tibetans-self-immolate/1676255.html].

This VOA article describes the conflict between Tibetans (mostly followers of Dalai Lama) and the Chinese Communist Government. This gives us reason to research political differences in China and their influence on architecture in secluded areas. The article also analyzes the conflict’s causes and the standpoint of the US government on the issue. This journal also maps self-immolations in Tibet on a month-by-month graph, which can become useful in tracing causes.

“Disclosure of Young Monks self-Immolate,” Hefei News Agency (2011), accessed September 15, 2013. [http://news.hefei.cc/2011/1125/020191175.shtml]

Edward Wong, “China Warns U.S. on Meeting With Dalai Lama,” New York Times (2010), accessed September 16, 2013. [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/03/world/asia/03tibet.html?_r=0]

Finlo Rohrer, “Why does the West love the Dalai Lama?” BBC News Magazine (2010), accessed September 16, 2013. [http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8521957.stm]

Gearóid Ó Colmáin, “Dalai Lama Cult: Postmodern neo-feudalism and the decline of the West,” Dissident Voice (2012), accessed September 16, 2013. [http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/06/dalai-lama-cult-postmodern-neo-feudalism-and-the-decline-of-the-west/]

Jing Zhou, “Sociological Features of Tibetan Agricultural Manor before the Democratic Reform,” Journal of Tongji University, Social Science Section (2006).

“Seven Questions for the Dalai,” Xinhua News Agency (2012), accessed September 15, 2013. [http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2012-03/24/c_111697689.htm]

Tingtin Niu, Y. Wang, Z. Jiao, “On Palace Architecture in Tibet Theocratic System,” Huazhong Architecture (2010). [http://c.g.wanfangdata.com.cn/periodical-hzjz.aspx]


Encyclopedia Entries

Jonathon Walters, “Religion: Year in Review: 1995:: Buddhism,” Encylcopedia Britannica (1995). [http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/497087/Religion-Year-In-Review-1995/233090/BUDDHISM]

Walter’s article describes religion-influenced events in the year 1995, but gives a foundation for the events of 2009-2013. By this article, we can trace the causes of self-immolations to the Dalai Lama’s exile and the politico-religious struggle that ensues since then between the Lama and the Chinese government. Moreover, the article notes about self-immolations in Vietnam in 1995, this time connected to the “outlawed Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam”, along with hunger strikes in major cities. We can look deeper into self-immolations being a means of public demonstration for major causes, and the way these are transmitted through mass media.

Wikipedia, “Self-Immolation protests by Tibetans in China.” Last modified 22 July 2013. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-immolation_protests_by_Tibetans_in_China]

The piece on Wikipedia provides a summary of a series of self-immolations of Tibetan people and states the impact of this social issue. A supporting citation (Andrew Jacobs) speaks on the power of internet and social media. It also mentions the blackout and ban of foreign journalists by the Chinese Government.

Supporting Citations:

Andrew Jacobs, “Technology Reaches Remote Tibetan Corners, Fanning Unrest,” the New York Times (23 May 2012).  Retrieved 24 May 2012.

Wikipedia, “History of Tibet.” Last modified 15 September 2013. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Tibet#1912.E2.80.931951:_de_facto_independence]

“Chinese Culture: Part IV – Feudal Serfdom in Old Tibet,” About (2013). [http://chineseculture.about.com/library/china/whitepaper/blstibet9205.htm]


Scholarly Articles

Emily T. Yeh, “Blazing Pelts and Burning Passions: Nationalism, Cultural Politics, and Spectacular Decommodification in Tibet,” The Journal of Asian Studies 72 (2013), 319-344, doi:10.1017/S0021911812002227. [http://journals.cambridge.org/abstract_S0021911812002227]

Though this article speaks less of self-immolations, it does describe the effect of mass media and local film-making on the way a religious event is ostracized. Yeh writes about the burning of expensive pelts in Tibet after the Dalai Lama’s announcement that monks ought to “cease wearing clothes lined with endangered animal’s skins”. The article explores tensions within Tibet, political tensions between Tibet and the Chinese government, and Tibetan global reputation. All these, when paired with the section on media and filmmaking, can help us discover connections between religious ideas, burnings (public events), and their interpretations elsewhere.

“Aflame in Anger”, Economic and Political Weekly (2012), accessed September 6, 2013.

The article gives more information about tensions between Tibet and the Chinese government. A specific quote claims that the burnings are a result of the government’s closing of all avenues of protest: “All expressions of dissent, however minor or symbolic, are put down with a heavy hand, which include imprisonment, loss of employment and even torture”. The article also claims that the Tibetan self-immolations are “devoid of solidarity”, as there is no clear reason backing them. Tibet, according to the writer, has constantly switched sides as to its political and religious ideals – the exile of the Dalai Lama first being supported, then resented, then protested (as an example).


Orthographic Documentation

Voice of America, “2 More Buddhist Monk Self-Immolate in Tibet Protest,” VoA news (2013), accessed September 9, 2013. [http://www.voanews.com/content/buddhist-monks-selfimmolate-in-tibet-protest/1648325.html]

This graph shows the distribution of self-immolation in Tibetan area till April 14, 2013. It provides us a clue of areas most impacted by Tibetan Buddhism and how it motivates self-immolation. The city Rebkong in the Qinghai province has the most self-immolation cases. We will further our research by looking into the cultural background of this city.


Video and Audio

Voice of America, “What makes Tibetans Self-immolate?” VoA news (2013), accessed September 9, 2013. [http://www.voanews.com/content/what-makes-tibetans-self-immolate/1676255.html]

This video considers the exile of Dalai Lama as one of main causes of Tibetan self-immolation. As a religious leader, Dalai Lama has a strong impact on Tibetan society and local culture. Hence, studying the Lama and his influence on the Tibetan monks can be a good start for our research. Moreover, to take this topic further, we can analyze how, architecturally, a distant leader can have any effect on a whole village or area. This involves both ideas of mass communication/media and the division of rich and poor areas, especially in China.

CCTV, “Guidebook to Self-Immolation: Evidence of hands behind the tragedies,” Youtube (2013), accessed September 15, 2013. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWfckIhnqik]



Sakya Monastery. Tibet Tour (2013). Accessed September 22, 2013. [http://www.tibettour.com/tibet-attraction/sakya-monastery.html]



Why Tibetans are burning themselves to death? http://www.themorningsidepost.com/2013/04/17/why-tibetans-are-burning-themselves-to-death/

Jampa Yeshi self-immolates in March to protest China’s policies. http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/14/will-beijing-s-new-leaders-solve-the-tibet-crisis.html


“Disclosure of Young Monks self-Immolate,” Hefei News Agency (2011), accessed September 15, 2013. [http://news.hefei.cc/2011/1125/020191175.shtml]


Sakya Monastery:



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