Dying for Tibet, but Will Cause Expire With Dalai Lama?

04/23/2013 06:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2013

Surely the most horrific way to get your point across, your voice heard, your protest noted, is to douse yourself in fuel and strike a match. The visceral agony of such a macabre death seeps through images broadcast, printed and electronically conveyed around the world. Self-immolation, the fiery act of the passionate voiceless, is nonetheless on the rise among Tibetans irate at China's stern hold on their one-time homeland. As a form of protest, it is possibly only comparable to the late 1970s and early 1980s hunger-striking republican prisoners during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Since 2009, at least 100 Tibetans have set themselves alight in protest against Chinese rule. Are they out of their minds to kill themselves in such brutal fashion? Not according to the Dalai Lama, Tibetans' beloved spiritual leader. Speaking in Italy earlier this month, the globe-trotting celebrity monk exiled in northern India and ostensibly retired from the murky business of politicking said they were perfectly sane but fatally enraged at China's "brutality" towards Tibetans. (This includes, as one told the New York Times recently, an apparent prohibition on celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday.)

"Tibetans who have taken their lives to escape the torture and prisons of China are not crazy," the 77-year-old Dalai Lama told supporters.

If the wave of self-immolators is taking aim at Beijing, its new man in Lhasa is striking at the Dalai Lama himself. Soon after being appointed in January, Governor Losang Gyaltsen splenetically vowed to "resolutely struggle" against the Dalai Lama in the latter's quest for the return of a sovereign Tibet, which was incorporated into China in 1951 with the signing of what is known as the Seventeen-Point Agreement for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has long since rejected the document, saying it was "thrust upon Tibetan government and people by the threat of arms."

He said in Italy: "We will unswervingly protect the unity of the motherland and ethnic harmony ... and maintain harmony and stability in Tibet. Harmony and stability are the basic guarantee of Tibet's development and prosperity."

The Dalai Lama's immutable role as focal point for the movement for a free Tibet has not seen him slow up even as his age advances and after he has withdrawn from political life. But will the global cause spearheaded by the quirky monk, with such Hollywood champions as Richard Gere and Harrison Ford outlive him?

Nathan W. Hill, a lecturer in Tibetan studies at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, says there are concerns about the Dalai Lama's demise and what might transpire.

"The Free Tibet movement might deflate; it might loose celebrity interest; it might go violent. Many Tibetan exiles and members of the government in exile are worried that the death of the Dalai Lama could lead to a radicalisation of the movement that would loose it the hard-won sense of sobriety and dignity that has made it a cause célèbre in the West," he told me.

"What they don't understand is that all of that is worth a hill of beans. How has it helped a single Tibetan in Tibet to have Richard Gere and Steven Segal on side? Tibet will continue to be a problem for China so long as the Chinese blame their problems on causes other than their own failed policies."

Hill says it's not always easy to predict the outcome of independence struggles.

"History has many surprises in store for us. Ireland became independent of the UK at the height of its power -- an admitted oversimplification. Silesia was in German speaking hands for centuries but isn't now. These things happen."

"To keep independence a possibility it is important for ethnic Tibetans to be comparatively well educated and wealthy inside of Tibet... A moment of instability in China -- which many agree is coming -- could be used to wrestle Tibet away, much like the Zionists used the withdrawal of the British from Palestine effectively."

Hill, who has studied in Tibet, said that every Tibetan he met there was "filled to the brim with intense hated for the Chinese as an ethnic group" and he argues that the act of self-immolation is "a very extreme way of showing dissatisfaction: it is violent, but it cannot be misconstrued, caricatured and dismissed."

He adds: "As a solution to the quandary of how to perform violent acts of protests without being scapegoated by nativist rhetoric around being brutes in need of the civilizing embrace of mother China, one cannot doubt that there is something ingenious to self-immolation."

Inventive as a protest measure it may be -- however grisly -- but the only certainty in this entrenched battle is that for those who go down in a blaze of flames for their struggle, their efforts end there. Whether the Tibet issue is a dying cause, apart from one worth dying for, is another question, but one that will be answered before not too long.