Silenced screams

The self-immolations have rattled the Chinese.

China’s reported closure of Tibet to foreign tourists reeks of insecurity. The decision to prevent tourists from visiting Tibet stems from growing protests there. Over the past 15 months some 37 Tibetans have attempted self-immolation and several have died. What has Chinese authorities worried now is that such self-immolations are happening in the capital Lhasa, a popular destination of tourists. Last month, two people set themselves on fire outside Lhasa’s Jokhang temple, an important item on the itinerary of foreign tourists. With the peak tourism season coming up, it does seem that Chinese authorities did not want to leave anything to chance. Hence the new rule closing Tibet to foreigners. Tibet has been declared out of bounds to foreigners several times in the past, including in the wake of the mass protests that erupted ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games.
The self-immolations by Tibetans – several of them are monks – has shocked the world. While Tibetan anger and discontent with Chinese rule is well known, the self-immolations have underlined the deep despair that has left Tibetans feelings helpless and hopeless.

They have rattled Chinese authorities considerably, especially since they have the capacity to rally people, trigger larger protests, perhaps even spark a revolution. They are unlikely to have drawn any lessons from the self-immolation of a 26-year-old Tunisian man in 2010. That sparked mass protests which sparked off the Arab Spring. Clearly the Chinese are nervous and they have tightened security and increased surveillance of areas that are the epicentre of the protests. By preventing tourists from possibly witnessing the Tibetan self-immolations Chinese authorities are hoping that the world will not get wind of its severity. But in today’s globalised and networked world is it possible to keep ugly truths hidden forever? Beijing’s decision to close Tibet to tourists will have impact on the local economy too, adding to Tibetan resentment with China.

The long silenced screams of the Tibetans are being articulated now through self-immolations. Beijing must heed their voices and views. Closing Tibet to tourists will not address the grievances that underlie the protests. China’s approach to the Tibet issue has involved economic development of the region and use of coercion. There are political questions that need resolving and these can be addressed through dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Anything short of this will keep the region restive.

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