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Robbie Barnett: Why Tibetans Are Setting Themselves on Fire

posted Mar 9, 2012, 7:32 PM by The Tibetan Political Review   [ updated Mar 14, 2012, 9:57 AM ]

The Asia Society published this interview with Dr. Robbie Barnett, director of the Modern Tibetan Studies program at Columbia University:

Why are monks and nuns deciding to use this particular form of protest against the Chinese government?

The reasons why they have chosen this method of protest are not exactly clear. People inside Tibet, especially in rural areas, are sometimes able to get radio news in Tibetan from outside sources such as Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, but probably know little if anything about the Tunisian self-immolation last year, let alone the Vietnamese self-immolations 50 years ago. But they would have heard about the demonstrations that lead to the Arab Spring, and this might have encouraged people in a general way to see popular protest as a way to bring about change.

But they may be choosing this method of protest because in the previous cycle of unrest in Tibet in 2008, when there were about 150 street demonstrations by very large groups, about 20 of those incidents spiraled down into chaos and violence. The violence had allowed the Chinese government to avoid addressing the underlying issues and complaints of the protestors, and self-immolation may be seen as a way to avoid the downside of traditional large-scale street protests: it sends a message to the government in a way that the protestors hope will not be easy to brush aside because it does not do damage to other people or to property, and does not involve unrest.
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