Tibetan protest self-immolation: ecology, health and politics

A shrine to two Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire recently in protest against Chinese rule. (Photo courtesy: STRDEL/AFP)
A shrine to two Tibetan monks who set themselves on fire recently in protest against Chinese rule. (Photo courtesy: STRDEL/AFP)

Professor Colin D ButlerProfessor Colin D Butler* contends that aside from the politics of the issue and the last words left behind by many, the protest self-immolation by Tibetans under Chinese rule since Feb 2009 have a deeper underlying driving force rooted in the ecological devastation of their land which has severely affected their overall well-being.

It is well-known to most readers of Tibetan Review that since 2009 many Tibetans have committed protest self-immolation, now over 130 (http://www.savetibet.org/resources/fact-sheets/self-immolations-by-tibetans/). This essay, based on a chapter in a book published in 2013, explores some of the ecological, social and political causes as well as the health consequences of these tragic events.[1] It concludes by appealing for their end.

Tibetan protest self-immolation is recent. Tibetologist Robbie Barnett documents increased tension and protests during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, soon before the first occurrence in 2009. Another possible contributor to the phenomenon at that time is the increased use within China, including by protestors, of information technology, especially cell phones and the internet. Acts of protest-immolation increased sharply in 2011, mostly in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, where ethnic Tibetans are a minority due to Han resettlement.

Academic analysis has been scarce (an exception is a 2012 issue of Cultural Anthropology) particularly by Chinese scholars.[2] Attempts to identify rational causes for Tibetan self-immolation conflict with themes of liberation and fairness central to Communist Chinese ideology. Most Chinese analysis of Tibetan self-immolation is superficial, nationalistic and unsympathetic:

“A commonly cited reason for the perpetuation of anachronistic political and cultural control in today’s China and Tibet is the purportedly “low cultural level” (wenhua di) of the average citizen. … When state media is comparing the Dalai Lama to Hitler one might ask what, after all, qualifies as ‘low culture’?”[2]

In 2012 I submitted an abstract to the 4th biannual EcoHealth conference, for the International Association of Ecology and Health (IAEH), to be held in Kunming, Yunnan, China. I proposed a link may exist between protest self-immolation and ‘eco-social’ distress. Despite not mentioning Tibet or China it was scored as 0/5 – not warranting selection even as a poster. At the time, I was a co-editor of the journal EcoHealth. I had been a keynote speaker at the 2nd biannual conference. This score was thus highly unusual. Yet the (Chinese) academic in charge explicitly denied any censorship. But nor did he provide any academic reason. Consequently, I boycotted the conference, partly as a result I also resigned as a co-editor of the journal.

EcoHealth is a recently emerged discipline and movement that attempts to links ecology and the wider Earth system with human and animal health. Influenced by social medicine, it speaks of challenging political power. Concern with vulnerable people is a theme of EcoHealth. Tibetan scenes (e.g. monasteries), suggesting a happy, respected ethnic minority were used to promote the Kunming meeting, which also had a Mekong river theme.

Alas, I have concluded, such assertions are largely figurative; at least for China. The failure to challenge China’s power, albeit by a small group of EcoHealth practitioners with a conference at stake, was unsurprising given the fear which most non-Chinese have for the Chinese state.

Protest self-immolation

When I submitted my abstract 50 Tibetans had died of protest immolation. Since then the number has more than doubled. That is an extraordinarily high rate considering there are only about 6 million ethnic Tibetans.

In India, suicide by fire is ancient, but there seems no Tibetan equivalent perhaps because of the scarcity of firewood, and the consequent rarity of cremation. Beyond Tibet, there have been many other cases of protest self-immolation. A few have had significant political impacts, such as in Vietnam in 1963 and Tunisia in 2010. When the monk Thích Quáng Ɖuc set himself on fire on a busy Saigon street to protest Buddhist persecution by the South Vietnamese government, it became a potent symbol of distress.[3] Malcolm Browne (who had been alerted) filmed Ɖuc’s burning, surrounded by his students, and was later awarded the Pulitzer Prize. This highly publicized event transfixed many Americans. It didn’t end the Vietnam War, but within six months, the Vietnamese government had fallen to an army coup, despite strong US support for it. The Tunisian self-immolation is credited as helping catalyse the Arab Spring, eventually triggering the overthrow of four Middle Eastern dictators.[4]

Uzzell[4] traces the idea that some suicides can have an altruistic motivation to Durkheim (1858-1917), the father of sociology. Another sociologist, Biggs, recorded over 500 acts of protest self-immolation occurring between 1963 and 2002, with the highest rate among Kurds.[3] In 2002 the Kurds were generally considered the largest stateless population in the world. They have a quasi-independent state today, but self-immolation is not an obvious causal factor for their success.

An intense wave of self-immolations occurred in 1990 in India, with over 200 occurrences in only 10 weeks. These were mostly high caste students protesting at affirmative action (the Mandal Commission), which was trying to improve conditions for less privileged castes. These suicides were part of a much larger campaign, and in support of a group far less vulnerable than the Tibetans in China. Recently, young Bulgarians have seen self-immolation to protest deepening poverty and inequality in one of the most deprived parts of Europe. No benefits are yet obvious.

In the West, self-immolation still shocks and horrifies. In China it is hard to know. The dominant Chinese reaction to Tibetan self-immolation seems more of irritation and a wish to exert control than horror. But any sympathetic human reaction by Chinese seems likely to be suppressed by censorship. Even the fact of Tibetan suicides seem to have scarcely been reported in China. So far, in China, they seem to have had negligible influence.

The plundering of Tibetan ecology

My published chapter presents detailed arguments that Tibetan protest-immolation may in part be related to declining biodiversity. Over a century ago Tibet had immense herds of antelope and other species. The British explorer Rawling[5] described ‘Antelope Plain’ on the Tibetan plateau, with herds of 15,000–20,000 Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii) visible at one time. The antelope population is reported to have declined by 90% between1900 and the early 1990s, to about 70,000 due to its hunting, particularly to provide shahtoosh, a warm and light wool.[6] By 2000, Tibet’s once densely forested south-eastern region had been almost completely converted to agricultural land, with consequent loss of habitat for numerous indigenous animals. Several charismatic Tibetan species are now classed as endangered or vulnerable, including the snow leopard (Uncia uncia) and the Marco Polo sheep (argali) (Ovis ammon polii).

The claim that Buddhism in Tibet has restricted hunting has recently been challenged. Yeh[7] cites Huber[8] as noting that none of the 14th Dalai Lama’s books published before 1985, nor interviews that he gave from his arrival in India in 1959 through the mid-1980s, made any reference to ecology. However, Rawling noted herds of yak and antelope with no fear of man, who were in fact curious. Sven Hedin also wrote: ‘No one sends a bullet after a kiang (Equus kiang) within sight of the mountain of the Gods- the animals know that the holy lake and its shores are a sanctuary’.[5]

The population of Tibetans, in comparison to its vast area was tiny, in part deliberately, due to customs that limited population growth, principally polyandry and monasticism. Low human population and insignificant exports helped protect its herds and flocks. But in 1958, soon after Chinese occupation, ‘continuing for two decades’, blue sheep (Pseudois nayaur) were killed in ‘commercial quantities’ in Qinghai, for export to Germany.

In his book ‘Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe’ Schaller[9] provides numerous references suggestive of a drastic decline in wildlife populations in the vast rangelands of northern Tibet. He concludes: The beauty of these steppes and peaks will persist, but without wildlife they will be empty and the Tibetans will have lost part of their natural and cultural heritage. My vision for tomorrow is the past when humans, livestock, and wild animals lived in the vast steppes of the Chang Tang in ecological harmony.

Tibetans may be more culturally sensitive to the loss of wildlife than some other human populations – they may have comparatively high biophilia (a deep appreciation for other species)[10]. In Sichuan, due to population expansion and deforestation, there is increasing contact and conflict between bears and people. Though killing bears is illegal, poaching has occurred, but comparatively less is undertaken by Tibetans[11]. In summary, the Chinese occupation of Tibet has been accompanied by important adverse ecological effects, and it is plausible that these effects are depressing the spirit of some Tibetans.

Tibetan cultural oppression by China

While the Chinese deny significant crimes in Tibet they have for decades imposed severe restrictions on reporting and travel within occupied Tibet. Such restrictions are convincing evidence that China has much to hide. The filmmaker and journalist Vanya Kewley undertook a clandestine trip for six weeks to Tibet in the late1980s, resulting in a film and a book, both of which support claims made by the exiled Tibetan community of over one million premature Tibetan deaths since the 1949 invasion[12]. While some of these deaths were part of the great Mao-made famine from 1959 to1961 there is overwhelming evidence, including mass uprisings, imprisonment for ‘re-education’ and torture to conclude that there is much unhappiness among Tibetans due to their restricted freedom and ongoing discrimination.

The largely Chinese-educated blogger Tsering Woeser recently commented:

“In 1988, I read In Exile from the Land of Snows by John F. Avedon[13]. It had been translated into Chinese in order to be criticized. The minute it was published, they realized that was a mistake and withdrew it. But some volumes were already in circulation. Avedon wrote .. how the People’s Liberation Army conquered Tibet in the 1950s. .. I realized that everything I’d seen had been from the Communist viewpoint: that they’d liberated Tibet and so on. When I read this book I realized, oh, it was like that.”

(interviewer: Did you believe it?)

“I couldn’t at first. So I gave it to my father to read. My father was a professional soldier—a member of the People’s Liberation Army. .. He didn’t like to say much. But he said that 90 percent of it was accurate. So then I realized that it basically was correct and I thought, gosh, they killed so many Tibetans! I read that book several times”[14]

Tibetan protest immolation and health

Suicide is a particularly tragic form of death, with flow-on effects, both political and health-affecting throughout the community. The families of Tibetan self-immolators (some of whom had young children) are likely to be traumatised, as may the wider community of Tibetans and supporters. Lack of access makes the scale of suffering impossible to measure, but the starting position should assume harm. The limited evidence available, such as final letters and statements made by people about to die, suggests political solidarity; some hint at deep regret, perhaps sadness, on behalf of the Tibetan people.

Some analysts (including at the EcoHealth meeting in Kunming) quarantine protest-immolation as entirely ‘political’ and irrelevant to health. But Tibetan protest-immolation is related to a loss of well-being, and health cannot be fully disentangled. Protestors and their supporters are trying to improve their social conditions, and that would improve their health. They may not fully articulate this, but if so, health workers who can see these links have a role to act as amplifiers and interpreters.


I have long been sympathetic to the Tibetan cause, including via the NGO Benevolent Organisation for Development, Health and Insight (BODHI) (www.bodhi.net.au) which I co-founded in 1989. I am not neutral, but nor are Sinophilic observers. Because of my previous experience of censorship, my abstract avoided mentioning Tibet or China. Other experience of Chinese censorship includes from 2008 when I chaired an academic meeting on the environment at the fifth United Nations Day of Vesak meeting, in Hanoi. There I witnessed much evidence of how apprehension of China shadowed that meeting and the three organising conferences I attended, from which Tibetans were excluded.

Conclusion – some hope

The debate about how to improve conditions in Tibet continues, even between Woeser and her activist partner Wang Lixiong. Wang recently was reported as stating “resisting—what good is that? They’ve been resisting so many years but it’s achieved nothing. If you look at film clips [of protests abroad] from thirty years ago and today, it’s all the same—the same slogans, the same actions.” Woeser disagrees[14].

Barnett has recently argued that the Chinese and the exile Tibetan sides practice incompatible forms of diplomacy. He points out that the Tibetan appeal to human rights works with the liberal West but antagonises Chinese officials and their public[15]. At the same time the Chinese approach works with its domestic audience, but provokes Tibetans and their allies. Helpfully, Barnett suggests that the exiled Tibetan leaders learn more Chinese and address them more. Appealing to Westerners does little good, apart from for the exiled community. It is hard to disagree with this.

China has great pride in its civilization. Slowly, its affluent population is demanding cleaner air and food. There seems growing recognition that the use of animal body parts for medicine or status goods (such as ivory or rhinoceros horn) is founded on cruelty and ecological ravage. Self-immolation by Tibetans in China is currently a psychic splinter, tolerated by an indifferent, poorly educated majority, but one day repression towards its minorities must be removed if Chinese civilisation is to merit the name. As the internet and affluence grow in China, tolerance to its minorities may too. Long before then let us hope Tibetan protest within China evolves ways that do not cause such pain to others.


1.            Butler, C.D., Tibetan protest self-immolation in China: reflections on ecology, health and politics, in Ecological Health: Society, Ecology and Health, M. Gislason, Editor. 2013, Emerald Press: Bingley, UK. p. 67-89.
2.            Carrico, K., Chinese state media representations. Cultural Anthropology, 2012. Hot Spot Forum, Cultural Anthropology http://culanth.org/?q=node/531.
3.            Biggs, M., Dying for a cause – alone? . Contexts, 2008. 7(1): p. 22–27.
4.            Uzzell, J., Biopolitics of the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. e-International Relations, 2012.
5.            Rawling, C.G., The great plateau, being an account of exploration in central Tibet, 1903, and of the Gartok expedition, 1904-1905. 1905, London: Edward Arnold.
6.            WWF, Tibetan Plateau Projects. 2012.
7.            Yeh, E.T., Transnational environmentalism and entanglements of sovereignty: The tiger campaign across the Himalayas. Political Geography, 2012. 31(7): p. 408-418.
8.            Huber, T., Green Tibetans: A brief social history, in Tibetan Culture in the Diaspora F. Korom, Editor. 1997, Verlag der Osterreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Wien. p. (103-119).
9.            Schaller, G.B., Wildlife of the Tibetan Steppe. 1998, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 383.
10.          Wilson, E.O., Biophilia. 1984, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 157.
11.          Liu, F., et al., Human-wildlife conflicts influence attitudes but not necessarily behaviors: Factors driving the poaching of bears in China. Biological Conservation, 2011. 144(1): p. 538-547.
12.          Kewley, V., Tibet. Behind the Ice Curtain. 1990, London: Collins.
13.          Avedon, J., In Exile from the Land of Snows: The Definitive Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest. 1986, New York: Vintage Books.
14.          Johnson, I., Beyond the Dalai Lama: An Interview with Woeser and Wang Lixiong. New York Review of Books, 2014.
15.          Studying Tibet Today: a discussion with Robbie Barnett. The China Story 2014; Available from: http://www.thechinastory.org/2014/08/studying-tibet-today-a-discussion-with-robbie-barnett/.

Professor Colin D Butler is Australian Research Council Future Fellow at the Faculty of Health, University of Canberra, and Visiting Fellow, National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, Australian National University.



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