Why Is Ngaba Burning?

A commentary by Tsering Woeser
tibet-ngaba-kirti-monasetery-2011.jpg Monks sit near the entrance of Kirti monastery in Ngaba town, Oct. 17, 2011.

Writer Tsering Woeser has used her blog, "Invisible Tibet," together with her poetry, historical research, and social media platforms like Twitter to give voice to millions of ethnic Tibetans who are prevented from expressing themselves to the outside world by government curbs on information. Now based in Lhasa, Woeser continues to document Tibetan life under Chinese Communist Party rule in the Himalayan region. In a recent commentary, she focuses on self-immolation in Ngaba (in Chinese, Aba), a Tibetan region of Sichuan province:

As Kirti Rinpoche put it in his testimony to the U.S. Congress on Nov. 2, 2011: "The Chinese Communist Party has implemented policies of high oppression in the whole Tibetan area, but particularly in the Ngaba area, with which we have a special relationship. This has created fresh trauma to add to the psychological wounds already carried by the people of Ngaba. Now, there are three generations there whose wounds have had no way to heal."

As the abbot of Kirti monastery, which is one of the 20-some monasteries of the Gelugpa sect [of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama] and one of the most important inside Tibetan lands, Kirti Rinpoche referred to three generations of trauma suffered by Tibetans.

They include the massacre of monks and laymen and the looting of monasteries in the Ngaba district by Chinese Communist Party Red Army soldiers on the Long March. [General] Zhu De actually took up residence in the prayer hall of Kirti monastery and despoiled images of the Buddha.

In 1958, the Chinese Communist Party engaged in a program of "democratic reforms" in the Ngaba area, and in 1966 it waged its Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, with the result that not a single monastery was left standing, and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of Tibetans were detained or killed, and the area was subjected to mining and forestry exploitation.

And from 1998 to the present day, it continues to wage an increasingly violent "patriotic education movement," which has ignited the flames of Tibetan protest, and which is the main cause of the Tibetans' self-immolation.

Ngaba self-immolations

The Chinese government's administrative region known as Ngaba county lies at the center of the older Ngaba region in Amdo, which was once a place given over to nomadic herders, and a place of great religious reverence.

There are 42 places of Buddhist teaching and worship in the county, and the majority of its 70,000-some inhabitants are either herders or monks.

The first self-immolation to take place inside China's borders was a monk called Tapey from Kirti monastery. And of the 133 Tibetans to set fire to themselves to date, the largest group—36 monks and nuns—has been from Ngaba county.

Of that group, 20 were monks, 13 were herders, two nuns, and one a migrant worker in Lhasa.

March 16

So Ngaba is burning, and this has to do with the crackdown on the street protests of March 16, 2008. That day, the authorities forced Kirti monastery to fly the Chinese national flag above its main prayer hall, sparking a protest and demonstration by several thousand monks and ordinary people.

Twenty people were massacred by police and army on the streets, including a pregnant woman, a five-year-old child, and a 16-year-old female high-school student.

This bloody day has been called the "Day of the Ngaba Massacre" ever since. And the first self-immolation that took place the very next year happened because the authorities canceled a prayer ceremony in honor of the victims of 3/16.

Since Tapey, self-immolations have taken place on March 16, 2011, 2012, and 2013. Kirti monks Lobsang Phuntsog, Lobsang Tsultrim, and Lobsang Thogme all sacrificed themselves through self-immolation.

And Lobsang Palden set fire to himself on the exact same spot as Tapey on March 16 this year, in [a street] that is now known as "Heroes Alley," as more than 10 Tibetans have given themselves to the flames there.

Ngaba is on fire, and it has everything to do with the ongoing crackdown there.

Open letter

Two years ago, a post appeared on one of the Netease forums titled "An open letter from a Tibetan party member." It was very quickly deleted.

The author used their position as a Tibetan member of the [Chinese Communist Party] to complain to its leaders about the "human and natural disaster from start to finish" visited on Ngaba by then prefectural party secretary Shi Jun, whose tenure ran from 2007 to 2012:

"Some called him the Lord of Demons, because he escalated small incidents into huge confrontations in order to secure his own advancement and to try to win brownie points."

"He said that the rusting, ancient knives and guns laid over thousands of years in the shrines of the dharma protectors--to show an end to evil customs—of the monasteries and temples were the instruments of anti-communist insurrection and Tibetan independence."

This complaint evidently had no effect, because Shi Jun had already been elevated to the post of assistant to the Sichuan provincial governor and head of the Sichuan provincial police department.

The letter also said that there was an increasing number of self-immolations in Ngaba prefecture, but that "non-Tibetan officials, who have no principles and no feelings, react to such sensitive incidents with the words 'as long as they burn away to nothing, that's just fine,' and 'execute the lot of 'em.'"

The letter also took aim at two Han Chinese officials in charge of "stability maintenance" work in Ngaba prefecture: deputy prefectural governor Yan Chunfeng and the head of the management department for Kirti monastery, Liu Feng. It said that neither Ngaba nor its monasteries could return to peace if they continued to act in such a crass manner.

Spiritual force

Ngaba is in flames, and this has a lot to do with the high-flown courage and the burden carried by its people and its monks and nuns.

It is a matter of great dignity to experience the spiritual force of the Tibetan people, to share their pain, to be inspired by their courage, and to express support [through self-immolation]. It is akin to the sublime state expressed by the idea of nirvana.

As the herder Kayang put it in his suicide note: "I am blissfully happy to have been able to give myself for the Tibetan people. I have no regrets. So please don't be sad for me."

As the Kirti monk Lobsang Palden, the most recent Tibetan to sacrifice himself through self-immolation, wrote in his suicide note: "I must seek ways to benefit others, not ways to benefit myself. The root of happiness is helping others, and solidarity with others."

The 36 Tibetans from Ngaba who self-immolated, and the 133 Tibetans who burned themselves within Tibetan lands, all respected the teachings of the Dalai Lama on non-violence.

In offering their lives through burning, they have achieved the most intense expression possible of political protest.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Editor's note: RFA counts 129 self-immolations by Tibetans in China since 2009.

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