The Unread Notes of Tibetan Self-Immolators: Questioning the Popular Consensus

For better or for worse, an essential part of the news writing craft involves the judicious use of space. In headlines, this compression involves dropping articles, appositives, and adjectives. In the article body, journalists create mental shortcuts for readers by appealing to stereotypes about far-off places and conflicts. As it applies to the “Tibetan freedom movement”, the long-running narrative pits a long-suffering minority against the brutal machinery of an omnipresent state. No wonder, then, that when more than 100 Tibetans started self-burning protests in China over the past two years, these events became just a punctuation mark on a long story of the unbearable misery of living in western China.

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A man self-combusts in Guoluo Prefecture, Qinghai Province. December 2012

But could these self-immolations be their own story?  Could each self-immolator have their own story to tell? Or even a story in aggregate? The most respectful way to find out might be to read the men and women’s last words, as written down beforehand or recorded by witnesses.

I am relieved of the need to perform my own quantitative analysis by Wang Lixiong, a Chinese dissident who has published extensively on Tibet. His December 2012 blogpost sorted the reasons for 92 sufficiently documented self-immolations into seven non-exclusive categories.

He found that the most popular and intuitive rationales posited by outsiders were not shared by the participants themselves. Only 4% of testaments expressed a desire to reach the attention of the international community, and a mere 19% each demanded Tibet’s independence, some concrete policy change, or an end to the writer’s insufferable life. 35% regarded the act as one of “courage or responsibility”, and 38% deemed their deaths a “sacrifice to the Dalai Lama”. By far the most popular reason to self-immolate (54%) was: “to express an action”, elaborated upon by Wang as a desire to seize an opportune moment to take some kind of political action against the status quo.

No clear thread emerges throughout these variegated reasons. There is powerful rhetoric and symbolism, but all of it is flattering to the writers and their causes. Perhaps I was looking in the wrong place for an exposition of heartfelt feelings. Helpfully, China’s flagship news agency has interviewed the families of self-immolators and has published detailed profiles—warts and all—of their lives and last few months on earth. Some of the personalities behind the flames come across as downright sympathetic: the alcoholic gambler, who failed to raise start-up money for his business and had bad relations with his wife; or the bullied daughter-in-law, who on top of a disabled leg, was just diagnosed with gynecological disease. Others cavorted with prostitutes, displayed marital infidelity, and had better reasons to seek greater esteem from within their communities.

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Across countries, self-immolators have a higher incidence of personality disorders.

Western media dismissively cast the investigations as an attempt to “discredit” protestors, who they preferred to see as everymen. Indeed, the first sentence of a 2011 New York Times article reads: “What drives an ordinary man to burn himself to death?” [emphasis added]. But medical professionals who have studied self-immolators report that while social factors can be the proverbial “last straw”, they are usually predisposed to this act by an existing mental illness.

V.P. Mahla’s pioneering 1992 study of four Indian self-immolators found a range of personality disorders and family life problems in his subjects. According to the DSM-III, they presented symptoms consistent with narcissistic (case I), dysthymic (case II), histrionic (case III), and schizoid (case IV) personality disorders. Factors including substance abuse and awareness of previous self-immolations helped push these borderline personalities to the edge. Kessler et. al’s 1999 list of suicide risk factors for Americans—including social isolation, hopelessness, and poor health—also syncs well with the profiles of Tibetan self-immolators. Politics matter, but the mental health underpinnings of this public health crisis cannot be ignored.

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Elaborate memorials and praise for self-incinerators may promote some “copycat suicides”.

Since research began on the subject in the 1970s, a direct “copycat effect” has been observed whereby media coverage of suicides provoke listeners to take their own lives. The effect is particularly pronounced when adolescents consume images of the suicides of celebrities. It is no surprise, then, that a supermajoritarian 76% of the Tibetan self-immolators, according to Wang, were under the age of 30. Many of their first examples of self-immolation came from monastic communities, which occupy a central social position in Tibetan areas like that of the church in small-town America. Since the reasons for self-immolation were not particularly well-thought-out in the suicide notes, an element of faddishness emerges as a central cause for dozens of preventable deaths.

The most influential media outlets for suicidal Tibetan youths are Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America (VOA), two Cold War-era propaganda outlets funded by the United States government. America’s cynical reaction to the self-immolations, which includes secret meetings with the families of the deceased, indicates that it probably won’t be persuaded to moderate its excessive and laudatory coverage. But China can take action against these irresponsible stations with surgical use of radio and mobile phone jamming technologies. Since RFA and VOA reports are very frequently recirculated by more credible outlets, moderating the two stations’ access to sources within China would have a multiplier effect on the number of lives saved.

If there is in fact a “political solution” to “root” grievances, then it will require patience, dialogue, and compromise. But until then, China can apply insights from public health research to stop the bleeding.

James Carroll (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Jamesprofile (1)James Carroll is a Rutgers student studying for his B.A. in political science. He regularly geeks out over the histories of China’s borderlands, but loves nothing more than to expose the ironies and hypocrisies of “dissident” and anti-authoritarian movements. As a connoisseur of all things queer, sarcastic, and sublime, James is always ready to have his worldview challenged by his adversaries, and expects the same respect from all of his readers.

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