When the 26-year-old fruit seller Al Bouazizi set himself on fire last December, and died of his injuries 10 days later, it was big news and ignited a rebellion in Tunisia that quickly spread across the Arab world, toppling three governments, at latest count, and threatening the survival of several more. A similar act last month, the self-immolation of nun Tenzin Wangmo after Chinese troops shot and injured two Tibetan protestors, on the other hand, went largely unnoticed, even in the blogosphere, as has the death of Tibetan nun Palden Choetso, who burned herself last Tuesday.
The self-immolation of Tibetan monks and nuns has become tragically routine during the last year. In addition to the two nuns, nine Tibetan monks, most of them under 30 years of age, have protested Beijing's rule in this grisly fashion since March -- six in October alone, according to Strephanie Brigden, the Director of London-based Free Tibet.
Many of these incidents have occurred in a remote Tibetan ethnic region of Sichuan province, where the bombing of a government building last month has also been tied to resistance to Chinese rule. This region, the scene of a massacre of 13 Tibetan protesters in 2008 by state security personnel, has seen an upsurge of protest activities in recent months, leading to a crackdown by the Chinese authorities, including the forcible removal of three hundred monks from Kirti monastery for a program of "patriotic re-education."
News from Tibet is hard to come by. There are no full time international journalists or foreign aid workers stationed in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and little information leaking out over the Internet or on the social media, which are tightly controlled by Beijing. The Chinese have not allowed human rights groups to look into allegations of abuses in the Himalayan kingdom, and have severely punished and sometimes executed those who leak news of protests, like the latest self-immolations, to the Western press.
The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, who recently stepped down as the titular head of the Tibetan government in exile, laid the blame for these recent incidents at Beijing's door: "It's their own sort of wrong policy, ruthless policy, illogical policy." He urged Western leaders to pressure the Chinese to open a dialogue on the future of Tibet.
The Nobel Peace Prize winner characterized the nun's suicide as as an act of "deep desperation." The Chinese, on the other hand, called it "terrorism in disguise," and blamed the Dalai Lama for inspiring it.
The Dalai Lama, whose image is banned by the Chinese authorities in Tibet, is worshipped in his homeland as a living Buddha and symbol of Tibetan nationhood. He has consistently held out for non-violent resistance to Chinese rule, while many young Tibetans, both within Tibet and in exile abroad, have advocated a more aggressive response.
After the brutal suppression of the Tibetan culture and religion during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s, some monasteries have been rebuilt, and the Tibetan language has reportedly made a comeback in some areas, which earlier had been banned. Massive migration of Chinese, and forced relocation of native Tibetans, has radically altered the ethnic makeup of large parts of Tibet. Friction between Chinese and Tibetans, who view them as economic exploiters, led to riots in 2008, and a bloody crackdown.
Since then, tensions have remained high in many regions. The Dalai Lama called on the Chinese to end what he terms the "cultural genocide," of Tibet. Tibet's spiritual leader has not asked for independence, but for autonomy within the Chinese system, and for negotiations with Beijing.
Even this moderate approach, however, has won him few friends in Washington, where the Dalai Lama was snubbed by president Obama, who refused to meet with him in 2009 for fear of angering the Chinese. More recently, in July, the President did invite the Dalai Lama to the White House, where Obama reiterated his support for the preservation of Tibet's religious, cultural and linguistic heritage, but offered nothing by way of concrete support or pressure on Beijing. The U.S. has been reluctant to offend China, it's burgeoning trading partner, and the holder of over $1 trillion in U.S. Treasury debt.
So long as the U.S. and other Western nations remain focused on currying Chinese favor, and avoiding its wrath, there is little hope that Tibet will move off the back burner of global concern. How many more Tibetans will burn themselves in the future in a futile attempt to grab the attention of a world that is looking elsewhere?