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Project July 2, 2013

Tibet Burning: Behind the Wave of Self-Immolations


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Tibetan exiles in India sit in front of a poster commemorating Jamphel Yeshi, who self-immolated in Delhi last year during a protest against Chinese policies in Tibet. Image by Jeffrey Bartholet. India, 2012.

On January 12th, 22-year-old Tsering Tashi walked into the main square of Amchok township, a historically Tibetan area of China's Gansu province, and set himself on fire. As he lay in the road engulfed in flames, he somehow brought his hands together in a gesture of Buddhist prayer and called out the name of "Gyawa Tenzin Gyatso"—"His Holiness the Dalai Lama."

The first Tibetan self-immolator of 2013 left behind a young wife, his parents, and two sisters. Tashi's aunt, Tsering Kyi, later spoke with his grieving father. "Why are you crying?" he asked. His son had not died "without reason."

What is the reason behind the self-immolations of more than 100 Tibetans since 2011—monks and nuns, farmers and nomads, adults and teenagers? The Chinese government blames the gruesome deaths on "The Dalai Lama Clique." Its security apparatus has imposed harsh penalties on anyone associated with encouraging the burnings or providing information about them to foreign organizations. Tibetan exiles deny any role in instigating the fiery suicides. But they do hope the self-immolations gain the world's attention, and bring pressure on China to rethink its Tibet policies.

In this project, journalist Jeffrey Bartholet looks at the human and political dimensions of the burnings—their meaning, their possible impact, and the battle over who controls the narrative. He also explores the peculiar history of self-immolation, and the related debate among some Tibetan Buddhists about whether it constitutes acceptable or unacceptable violence.


teal halftone illustration of praying hands