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Tragedy on the Roof of the World

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Fire. We're surrounded by it every day, whether it's the house fire a couple of blocks over, the cozy fire in the fireplace, or the romantic candles burning in the café down the street. Self-immolation, on the other hand, is a different kind of fire. It's the ultimate statement, albeit one that is unimaginable to many, where you set yourself on fire, doused in gasoline so the flames leap up.

Last week, the newspaper reported that four more Tibetans had self-immolated in protest against the Chinese government. As tragic as these incidents are, they are unfortunately not rare. Since February of 2009, more than 80 Tibetans have self-immolated inside Tibet, with five Tibetans-in-exile self-immolating since 1998. The entire Tibetan community, whether inside Tibet or not, weeps at each of these losses and feels the profound pain of a brother or sister forever gone.

I first learned about the self-immolations last summer when I took part in a community service program in Dharamsala, a former British Raj hill station in northern India, right near Tibet.

Being part Tibetan, I've always been interested in finding out about my heritage, so I wanted to go to Dharamsala to learn more about the Tibetan situation and meet Tibetan refugees. The official seat of the Tibetan government in exile, Dharamsala is literally a mini-Tibet, with a Tibetan-majority population, momo dumplings (a traditional Tibetan food), and people circumambulating the Dalai Lama's temple while spinning their prayer wheels.

As part of the program, I spent my mornings teaching English at the Tibetan Children's Village, and some of the children there talked to me about self-immolation. "My people self-immolate because they cannot be heard," said one student, a nine-year-old girl. "They have no other way."

Although not unique to Tibet, self-immolation has become increasingly widespread in the region. The country was occupied by China in 1959 and most of it is now known as the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) of China. The Tibetans have been fighting to regain political control, hoping to return to their homeland under the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Because the Dalai Lama advocates non-violence in all things, protests usually take the form of marches, rallies, music events, poetry, international symposiums, and increasingly, self-immolation.

Even in July, Dharamsala never gets truly warm. There's always that brisk chill in the air, requiring at least a sweatshirt. As you walk along the main shopping street, you can feel the electric energy. The town buzzes with endless stalls, and vendors and shoppers shouting and laughing as they bargain. The road slopes downwards from the center of town and if you keep going straight, past the stalls and shops, you reach the Dalai Lama's temple.

Across from the temple, there's a large billboard, about eight feet long and five feet tall. Mounted on the board are posters in English, Tibetan and Hindi depicting each of the Tibetans who have self-immolated, both in and out of Tibet. Some of the pictures, taken on cellphones or video cameras, are of the people as they were actually burning alive. Below the pictures are the people's names and ages, as well as where they were when they self-immolated.

This situation is one that many have not heard about, and probably never will. Most don't know much about Tibet, a vast land of some of the highest peaks and widest deserts, with rolling hills in between. The self-immolations are the hidden pain -- the ugly backstory -- that nobody wants to explicitly address. With or without international media attention, it is one of the most tragic stories of our time.