The master tailor, farmer and father of two had lit himself on fire with a butter lamp. Engulfed in flames, he lurched some 40 steps, then died.
This happened in late September on a road in eastern Tibet. Shichung, age 41, was the 121st person to self-immolate in Tibet. There have also been incidents in India, Nepal and China.
Shichung had told people it was difficult living under Chinese repression. He did what so many others have done.
In 2013 at least 25 people have self-immolated. In 2012 around 80 died. Recently, in Dharamsala, north India, a man drank gasoline, poured gas over himself and then started to light himself on fire. Authorities stopped him.
But they couldn’t stop a nomadic farmer in Tibet. Or a 20-year-old man in Kathmandu. Or a 43-year-old Tibetan forest guard. Or a 20-year-old mother of four in East Tibet. All burned themselves. So did numerous monks, nuns and other lay people, including teenagers and an elderly grandmother in Beijing.
In one month alone, 21 people set themselves alight. One man built a huge pyre of wood, set it on fire using gasoline, then climbed onto it.
* * *
It all started prior to 1959 when China officially invaded Tibet. Even before that date, Chinese soldiers had shot Tibetans, forced residents off their land and systematically destroyed temples and monasteries. Tibetans were banned, on pain of death, to have Buddhist symbols or pictures of the Dalai Lama.
One monk my daughter Rosemarie and I knew, now deceased, could not walk easily because his feet had been crushed. He’d been in the most notorious Tibet prison – Drapchi near Lhasa – for 10 years and under house arrest for an additional 10. His crime: throwing rocks.
What was remarkable about this man when we met him was his genuine lack of anger against those who had tortured him and left him crippled for life. He had only compassion and empathy for his oppressors. His only wish was for the world to understand what was happening to Tibetans and their land. Yeshe Ngawanag was a light, and whenever we visited we left feeling restored and fulfilled with love and caring for other human beings.
Another woman escaped with her daughter and grandchildren. They walked 12 days, wearing light clothing and carrying little food. Her uncle, father and brother had been in prison and tortured. The uncle for 30 years, father for eight and brother about 11 years. When released, they were too sick and barely alive. Chinese authorities took everything from their home. They had nothing.
* * *
The list goes on. Some left and were shot by authorities. Kelsang Nsmtso would be over 20 years old now, but she was shot dead at the infamous Nangpa La Pass near Mt. Everest in 2006. On that September day, she and 80 other Tibetans were struggling to cross the ice and crevasses at 5,700 metres. Some people were detained and beaten with shock prods and batons.
Until 2008, 2,500-3,000 people escaped to India annually. Due to expanded military presence, 1,000 annually is the maximum that have managed to sneak across the border since then. There are at least 100,000 refugees now living in India.
Those inside Tibet are suffering. Venerable Bagdro, is a stalwart advocate of Tibetan rights and political activist, wants the UN to “send a representative to Tibet so that the reality on the ground can be known and required actions could be taken.”
In the late 1980s he was incarcerated in Drapchi for three years. His crime was taking part in a pro-independence protest. In his book A Hell on Earth – a brief biography of a Tibetan political prisoner – he describes being handcuffed and hung from the ceiling to just above the floor, doused with ice cold water to stay awake, beaten with metal rods and rifle butts, electrocuted in the ears, and more.
He understands only too well why people self-immolate. They are begging the world to listen. They want basic human rights.
Tibetan poet Tsering Woeser and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei have recently collaborated on a book about Tibetan self-immolations trying to get across to the world why this is happening, Immolations in Tibet: The Shame of the World was released in French mid-October 2013, and will be translated to English shortly.
Self-immolation, many Tibetans feel, is the only way to tell the world about the suffering and denial of human rights in Tibet. As Woeser wrote in her book, “self-immolation is the most hard-hitting thing that these isolated protesters can do while still respecting principles of non-violence.”
* * *
My head bows down and tears suffuse me. It’s another candle light vigil, in solidarity with the suffering. But the utter anguish accosts me.
Is this what it’s like, I reflect, one day a person says enough? He or she feels no anger, just despair and unconditional love for fellow Tibetans. This love, this unhappiness in a life without basic human rights, drives people to measures normally not undertaken. This is the ultimate sacrifice. What would you do?
We trudge behind others holding our candles, keeping them flickering, bowing in greeting to those we know. Children don’t shout, but stolidly walk with adults. Mothers clutch babies, old men shuffle on shaky legs. We all turn down Temple Road in Dharamsala, north India. More people join in.
In silence we had lit our candles. In silence we walked. This vigil, as so many before is also a plea to the world for compassion. It is a light of hope.
Liesel and Rosemarie Briggs work with Tibetans in exile and raise funds to assist them to re-establish themselves in India. For more information visit www.hands-of-hope.ca or phone (867) 668-7082.