Monestary in Aba [Ngawa] County of Sichuan Province, where many self-immolations occurred. Photo credit: sc157.com
Since February 2009, more than 90 Tibetans have reportedly set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese government policies. These self-immolations, which because of restrictions on reporting have been difficult to confirm, have largely been carried out by young Tibetan men and women in the eastern Tibetan regions that are divided between the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Gansu. Most of the protesters are known or believed to have died as a result of injuries sustained during these incidents.
The frequency of self-immolation, a form of protest that was previously unknown in Tibet, has accelerated in recent weeks. Some analysts suggest that this represents a new phase of protest, one aimed at forcing China’s new party leaders to confront grievances about tightened political control over religious institutions and policies that further weaken the cultural autonomy to which Tibetans and other ethnic groups are entitled under Chinese law.
In the face of growing protest in Tibetan and Uyghur regions in recent years, the Chinese government has held on firmly to its two-pronged effort to assimilate its western ethnic populations economically and culturally, even though many of these policies—such as relocation of nomadic herders into settled villages and “bilingual education” that places primary emphasis on Mandarin Chinese—have tended to further intensify grievances.
In an effort to curb self-immolations, local governments in Tibetan areas have also instituted a heavy security crackdown and intensified propaganda efforts aimed at demonizing protesters and the “black hands” who allegedly incite them. Both of these tactics are on display in an editorial recently published in the Gannan Daily, the newspaper published by the local party committee in Gannan [Kanlho] Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province. The editorial introduces guidelines issued by China’s top judicial and law-enforcement authorities aimed directly at criminalizing a wide variety of activities related to the protests. (Three of the activities mentioned in the report are to be considered intentional homicide, as was the case for at least three people detained in Sichuan last year.) It also features classic examples of the language associated with political campaigns—language that emphasizes the treachery of “splittist” forces inside and outside China who “cloak their illegal criminal acts in religion” while “bewitching” protesters to go against the interests of the “broad masses” and undermine ethnic unity.
It is unlikely that either the criminalization of self-immolation or heavy-handed propaganda will lead to the resolution of the longstanding grievances that underlie the protests. Recent government policies appear aimed at integrating these peripheral ethnic regions more firmly into the dominant economic, social, and cultural order of China, without giving due consideration to the desires of inhabitants there. Though self-immolation may appear to some as a senseless act, for those who choose this form of protest such sacrifice may reflect the relative lack of other means to express the suffering and indignity experienced by Tibetans.
Those Who Incite Self-Immolations Must be Severely Punished Under the Law
December 3, 2012
Gannan Daily commentator
Just as cadres and the masses of all ethnic groups in our prefecture are studying how to carry out the spirit of the 18th Party Congress by wholeheartedly seeking development and making concerted efforts in pursuit of moderate prosperity, splittist forces inside and outside our borders have bewitched and incited [people to carry out] a series of self-immolation incidents that have seriously affected the overall social situation of unity and stability in our prefecture.
So that the recent self-immolation cases that have occurred in Tibetan areas may be handled in accordance with the law and in order to ensure social stability, the Supreme People’s Court, Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have, based on relevant laws and regulations, jointly issued an “Opinion on Handling Self-Immolation Cases in Tibetan Areas in Accordance with the Law.”
The Opinion points out that the recent self-immolations that have occurred in Tibetan areas are cases of significant evil that result from collusion between hostile forces inside and outside our borders whose attempts to use premeditated, organized plots to incite splittism, undermine ethnic unity, and seriously disrupt social order. [The cases] have seriously affected the present overall situation of ethnic unity and social stability in Tibetan areas. Those who carry out self-immolations in these cases are unlike the ordinary world-weary person who commits suicide. Their common motivation is to split the nation and they endanger public safety and social order, classifying their self-immolations as illegal criminal acts. Organizing, plotting, inciting, coercing, enticing, abetting, or assisting others to carry out self-immolations is, at its essence, a serious criminal act that intentionally deprives another of his or her life.
Tibetan Buddhism emphasizes compassion and not killing as fundamental precepts. However, those who plot self-immolations cloak their illegal criminal acts with religion and have desecrated the faith of the broad masses of believers in Tibetan Buddhism. The Opinion makes clear that those criminals who act as principal culprits behind the scenes to organize, direct, and plot [self-immolations], as well as those who actively participate in inciting, coercing, enticing, abetting, or assisting others to carry out self-immolations, will be held criminally liable for intentional homicide in accordance with the relevant provisions of the Criminal Law of the PRC and targeted for severe punishment in accordance with the law. As for self-immolators themselves, once the nature of their illegal acts has been clarified, they should be treated differently depending on specific circumstances such as the extent of their malign intentions and the degree of the harm caused by their acts. If the circumstances are serious and major harm has been caused, they should also be held legally liable in accordance with the law.
The Opinion indicates that anyone who organizes, plots, incites, coerces, entices, abets, or assists others to commit self-immolations shall be held criminally liable for intentional homicide in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who actively commits self-immolation in which the circumstances are serious and that causes major harm or serious danger to society shall be held criminally liable in accordance with the law. Anyone who commits self-immolation in a public space and endangers public safety shall be held criminally liable for using dangerous methods to endanger public safety in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who prepares implements or creates conditions for committing self-immolations shall be treated as if he or she were preparing to commit a crime. Anyone who commits self-immolation and, while burning, grabs hold of another person, shall be held criminally liable for intentional homicide in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who commits self-immolation in a public place who does not endanger public safety but gathers many people to seriously disrupt public order or traffic order shall be held criminally liable for gathering a crowd to disrupt public order or traffic order in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who, in order to commit self-immolation, illegally carries gasoline or other flammable items into a public space or onto a public transportation vehicle shall be held criminally liable for illegally carrying dangerous items that endanger public safety in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who has been enticed, tricked, or coerced into committing self-immolations may be given lenient or mitigated [punishment] or exempted from criminal punishment in accordance with the law.
The Opinion further indicates that anyone who creates disturbances at the scene of a self-immolation and creates serious chaos in a public place shall be held criminally liable for creating a serious disturbance in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who gathers crowds to disrupt social order, public order, or traffic order by means such as parading around with a corpse or summoning a group to gather and watch shall be held criminally liable for gathering a crowd to disrupt social order or gathering a crowd to disrupt public order or traffic order in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who obstructs public security officers, medical personnel, or others from rescue efforts shall be held criminally liable for intentional homicide in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who commits beating and smashing at the scene [of an immolation] or damages or steals public or private property shall be held criminally liable for robbery or intentional destruction of property in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who prevents public security officers or other employees of state organs from carrying out their duties in accordance with the law, if the circumstances are rather serious, shall be held criminally liable for obstructing public service in accordance with the Criminal Law. Anyone who summons a group to mourn or collect funds for a self-immolator shall be prevented from doing so in accordance with the law; anyone who refuses to obey and gathers a crowd to disrupt social order, public order, or traffic order or who obstructs public service shall be held criminally liable in accordance with the law.
Civilized society requires rule of law, and the construction of a harmonious and beautiful society necessitates even more the safeguards of rule of law. The issuance of this Opinion is extremely necessary and extremely timely, not only because it provides a strong legal basis for handling various self-immolation cases in accordance with the law, but also because it serves as a strong deterrent for self-immolation incidents. It leads us to understand that laws are norms that every person must obey in a modern society, that absolutely no organization or individual may be allowed to operate above the law, that no one can enjoy extralegal privileges, and that all must be in awe before the law. In particular, those black hands behind the scenes who plan, direct, and incite others to commit self-immolation, [have committed] serious, illegal crimes that are extremely inhuman and they have violated human society’s most basic standards of conscience and morality. They must be subject to the law’s severe punishment and moral condemnation.
Throughout these recent years, the prefectural party committee and government have always shared joys and hardships together with the people of all ethnic groups in the prefecture, made improving livelihood and promoting the people’s well-being their fundamental goals, and continually improved the education system and extended public health and social security systems throughout urban and rural areas. Steady progress has been made toward the construction of new agricultural and pastoral villages as breakthroughs of the resettlement project, the incomes of farmers and herders have continued to increase, and the conditions of agricultural and pastoral villages have been completely improved. This has earned praise from cadres and the masses at all levels in the prefecture and received broad support from all segments of society.
Splittist sabotage does not enjoy popular support and self-immolations will not win people over. The facts prove that the fundamental interests of cadres and masses of all ethnic groups in Gannan rest on a unified nation, ethnic unity, and a harmonious and stable society and that these same conditions serve as fundamental assurance of breakthroughs to harmony and stability in pursuit of moderate prosperity and construction of a prosperous and beautiful new Gannan. Criminals who incite and bewitch with self-immolation must be brought to justice. Cadres and masses from all ethnic groups must have a deep understanding of the truth of “unity and stability lead to prosperity; splittism and rioting lead to disaster” and stand firm in drawing a clear line between [themselves and] all hostile forces and not be tricked or deceived. They must develop self-awareness of [the necessity of] upholding the good situation of ethnic unity and social stability and cherishing and protecting the good life that has not come easily.