China's response to the wave of Tibetan self-immolations fails to recognise that no amount of force can solve this crisis.
Tibetan suicides are tinder for future unrest in China
On the day in January when Lobsang Jamyang struck the match that took his life, the former Tibetan monk paid the world a subtle goodbye. He ate vegetarian food,visited his old monastery to circle it in prayer, and counselled a recently divorced couple to get back together.
Then, after drinking a bottle of petrol, his quiet preparations became a visceral act of political protest. "When he was on fire," one of his friends told me recently over tea, "he exploded".
Twenty-two similar acts of Tibetan defiance - from the first in March to the most recent last week - have happened in the last year. Tibetans, who have lived under Chinese rule for six decades, have embraced a grisly and desperate method - self-immolation - to demonstrate a renewed anger towards Beijing's religious, economic and cultural repression. In modern Tibet, the first instance of self-immolation occurred in 2009; in the past year, it has become a relative epidemic. The question is,how will it end?
For Beijing, the answer is force. Thousands of paramilitary police have floodedSichuan and Qinghai provinces in China's Tibetan region, and Communist Party officials have condemned suicidal monks as anarchists, terrorists and rebels. In December, one party official compared protesters to "rats" born of "weasels".
What Chinese authorities seem to fail to realise is that nearly two dozen self-inflicted deaths are not a police problem, but rather the start of a violent trend that could accelerate if concessions and dialogue are not offered.
In the Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala in India, religious leaders and political activists rightly see hypocrisy in China's crackdown. As security forces stream into eastern Tibet, grievances elsewhere in China are being addressed with a new degree of diplomatic acumen.
Recent protests in the village of Wukan, in the southern province of Guangdong, are instructive. When residents massed last year to condemn corrupt property deals, the Communist Party could have responded with more violence, as it had on many other occasions. Instead, officials offered to hold free village elections and to conduct an investigation.
Wukan cast ballots earlier this month. And on the same day that they voted, party officials in Sichuan blamed "trained separatists" and terrorists for the continuing unrest in Tibet.
Since the 1950s, fear of domestic instability has inclined Beijing to respond to its "Tibet problem" with violence, economic coercion and endless propaganda. But decades of social development and infrastructure improvements have failed to win over the millions of Tibetans who live in the vast expanse of grasslands and mountains of the Tibetan plateau.
Almost every one of the 22 people who have set themselves on fire over the last year had the same demand: Beijing must stay out of Tibetan religious affairs and allow the return of the Dalai Lama.
Neitherdemand is likely to be answered anytime soon. And yet, they demonstrate the depth of reverence for the man viewed as the embodiment of the intangible Tibetan faith. No degree of force or "re-education" can wipe away that belief.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is believed to be the earthly embodiment of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the deity of compassion. The incarnations of the Dalai Lama in different individuals have served as the spiritual and temporal leader of Tibetans for centuries.
China's manipulation of reincarnation doctrine - with Beijing introducing a law mandating that lamas, including the Dalai Lama, be approved by the officially atheist Communist Party - is rightly seen as an attemptto wipe out the Tibetan identity.
The spate of self-immolations is only a glimpse of the unrest that China will see if the Dalai Lama, now 76, dies without a solution that is acceptable to Tibetans. Kirti Rinpoche, an exiled abbot of amonastery that has seen about half of the recent immolations, told me that unless China changes its policies on religious practices, the crisis will deepen.
"The Chinese communist government should consider the situation and they should improve it," the abbot said, "or it could lead to violence." Tibetans, he said, "are helpless".
Not all Tibetans would see themselves as helpless bystanders. In death, Lobsang Jamyang may have accomplished morethan he could have in life. Far from driving the Tibetan issue underground, China's military response has only generated more unity and resolve.
"People were coming [to pay respects] from as far away as Lhasa," Lobsang's friend, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. "There is a spark of unity, and nationalism, now in Tibet; nationalism that is being sparked for the first time."
It is true that Beijing's grip on the Tibetan region faces no real challenge. Tibetans are not demanding political independence. Rather, they are calling for religious freedom, recognition of the status of high lamas and cultural respect.
Beijing's response, then, will shape the future. This is not an Arab-style rebellion that threatens regime change. But the deployment of police and tankscannot frighten protesters who are willing to set themselves on fire.
For now, Tibetans across the plateau continue to hold on to a belief that the Dalai Lama can, and will, bring them salvation. When his light is extinguished, do not expect the sparks of unrest and rebellion to disappear with it.