Begging the world to listen

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.

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 or phone (867) 668-7082.

Just Posted

Sarah Walz leads a softball training session in Dawson City. Photo submitted by Sport Yukon.
Girls and women are underserved in sport: Sport Yukon

Sport Yukon held a virtual event to celebrate and discuss girls and women in sport

Main Street in Whitehorse on May 4. Whitehorse city council has passed a bylaw to allow pop-up patios in city parking spaces. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bagged meter fees could be discounted for patios

Council passes first reading at special meeting

The Kwanlin Dün First Nation’s business park planned in Marwell is among a number of sites that are expected to make more commercial/industrial land available in the coming years. (Submitted)
Council hears update on commercial land

Number of developments expected to make land available in near future

keith halliday
Yukonomist: Have I got an opportunity for you!

Are you tired of the same-old, same-old at work? Would you like to be a captain of industry, surveying your domain from your helicopter and enjoying steak dinners with influential government officials at the high-profile Roundup mining conference?

Clouds pass by the Supreme Court of Canada in Ottawa, Friday, June 12, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Yukon government, B.C. company want Supreme Court of Canada appeal of Wolverine Mine case

Government concerned with recouping cleanup costs, creditor wants review of receiver’s actions.

The Village of Carmacks has received federal funding for an updated asset management plan. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Federal funding coming to Carmacks

The program is aimed at helping municipalities improve planning and decision-making around infrastructure

Paddlers start their 715 kilometre paddling journey from Rotary Park in Whitehorse on June 26, 2019. The 2021 Yukon River Quest will have a different look. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
The 22nd annual Yukon River Quest moves closer to start date

Although the race will be modified in 2021, a field of 48 teams are prepared to take the 715 kilometre journey from Whitehorse to Dawson City on the Yukon River

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at issues discussed by Whitehorse city council at its June 7 meeting

Letters to the editor.
This week’s mailbox: the impact of residential schools, Whitehorse Connects, wildfires

Dear Editor; Anguish – extreme pain, distress or anxiety. Justice – the… Continue reading

PROOF CEO Ben Sanders is seen with the PROOF team in Whitehorse. (Submitted)
Proof and Yukon Soaps listed as semifinalists for national award

The two companies were shortlisted from more than 400 nominated

The RCMP Critical Incident Program will be training in Watson Lake from June 14-16. Mike Thomas/Yukon News
RCMP will conduct three days of training in Watson Lake

Lakeview Apartment in Watson Lake will be used for RCMP training

John Tonin/Yukon News Squash players duke it out during Yukon Open tournament action at Better Bodies on June 5.
Four division titles earned at squash Yukon Open

The territory’s squash talent was on full display at the 2021 Yukon Open

Most Read