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Since the 1950 Chinese invasion that ended with the forced integration of Tibet into the People’s Republic of China, Tibet has been simmering. It has boiled over more than once, most notably for the first time in 1959, when uprisings swept through the Tibetan plateau and the current Dalai Lama fled to exile in India, as well as in 2008, when the unrest spread to the Tibetan diaspora.
And now, Tibet is burning. The first Tibetan to self-immolate was sixty-year-old Thupten Ngodup, who sacrificed himself after Delhi police carted away Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) hunger-strikers in April 1998, preventing them from starving to death as they had promised to do. Stepping into a public toilet, Thupten doused himself in gasoline, lit himself on fire, and then emerged back onto the site of the “Unto Death Hunger Strike,” flailing, jumping, and eventually, bringing his hands together in prayer, all within a raging inferno of flame. He died in a Delhi hospital after a personal visit from the fourteenth Dalai Lama.
But Thupten’s radical deed was soon forgotten outside of Tibetan activist circles. Then, over a decade later, on February 27, 2009, a monk named Tapey became the second Tibetan to self-immolate, sparking a chain reaction of self-immolations that has gained momentum over the last three years. At time of writing, forty Tibetans, including Thupten Ngodup, have self-immolated in protest of China’s rule over Tibet. After a long gap between Tapey’s self-immolation and the subsequent one, that of a monk named Phuntsog on March 16, 2011, the self-immolations have occurred closer and closer together, and many media outlets have remarked that the phenomenon shows no signs of stopping. The latest one, by a Tibetan from Amdo named Tamdin Thar, occurred less than a week ago.
Some have remarked that self-immolation is a radical departure from Tibet’s protest approach for the past sixty years, which for the most part has followed the Dalai Lama’s mandate that the Tibetan cause remain nonviolent, in line with the tenets of Tibetan Buddhism, and pursue a “middle way” course. Even discounting the uprisings of 1959 and 2008, both of which turned violent and resulted in the deaths of Tibetans and Chinese, however, Tibetan protest strategies have not always followed completely nonviolent methods. Hunger strikes, often with the intent of fasting until death, have been a tactic of the TYC for decades, resulting in varying amounts of success.
This past February, the TYC launched an “Indefinite Fast for Tibet” in front of U.N. headquarters in New York that lasted for thirty days. It finally culminated on March 23 when the U.N. promised to send investigators into Tibet. The three hunger strike participants, Shingza Rinpoche, 32, Dorjee Gyalpo, 59, and Yeshi Tenzing, 39, had stayed true to their word, eating nothing and drinking only water for the entire month. By the time the hunger strike was called off, Gyalpo had been sent to the hospital, where he continued to refuse food. The strike may have ended months ago, but the words of the President of the Tibetan Youth Congress Headquarters in Dharamsala, Tsewang Rigzin, ring on:
The Tibetan Youth Congress strongly calls on governments of this world and the United Nations to heed to the demands of the Tibetans suffering in Tibet. If you do not take the responsibilities to sincerely uphold the universal fundamental rights of human beings, you become willing accomplices to China’s inhumane crimes towards Tibetans. If you do not take immediate actions to help douse the burning flames inside Tibet, you become accountable to every growing casualty within the Tibetan population.
The following portraits of the New York hunger strikers and New York Tibetan Youth Congress president were shot by photographer Luke Townsend in the early days of the hunger strike. Their biographies and statements of purpose are on the following page.