Burning Buddhists: Self-Immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist Nationalism

Burning Buddhists: Self-Immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist Nationalism

Article by Hanne Van Regemortel

Abstract: This article looks at the case of self-immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist nationalism. Self-immolation as a form of protest in Tibet has seen a remarkable upsurge since 2008. This is a result of the tightening restrictions imposed by China on religious, political and cultural practices in Tibet and the human rights violations that go hand in hand with these restrictions. When looking at the farewell letters of the self-immolators and their principal reasons for choosing such a painful form of protest, it becomes clear that the main motivation can be found within feelings of Buddhist nationalism.

Keywords: Tibet, Self-Immolation, Protest, Buddhist Nationalism
Header image “Tibet” by AK Rockefeller is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.


This article looks at the case of self-immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist nationalism. The first act of self-immolation in recent history related to Tibet took place in 1998 and was carried out by a Tibetan living in India. Since then, more than 130 cases of self-immolation have been reported, both inside Tibet as well as in India and Nepal. Most of them are carried out by (former) Buddhist monks and nuns, but also students and other people (Mills, 2012). Some self-immolators commit the act on their own while others do it in groups of two or more people (Makley, 2015). Self-immolators who are arrested by the Chinese government disappear and both their fate and whereabouts remain unknown.

Self-immolation as a form of protest in Tibet has seen a remarkable upsurge since 2008. This is a result of the tightening restrictions imposed by China on religious, political and cultural practices in Tibet and the human rights violations that go hand in hand with these restrictions. When looking at the farewell letters of the self-immolators and their principal reasons for choosing such a painful form of protest, it becomes clear that the main motivation can be found within feelings of Buddhist nationalism.

Self-Immolation as a form of Resistance

2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising and subsequent exile of the Dalai Lama. Ever since, China’s policy towards Tibet has been one of strict control with forced re-education and the banning of certain religious practices and ceremonies. Military and police forces are omnipresent in Tibet and ready to suppress the slightest spark of protest, whether it is a rally, march, or hunger protest. Anyone participating in such kinds of protests risks being arrested (Regalbuto, 2012). This does not mean that throughout these years the Tibetans have acquiesced to Chinese occupation; they have rebelled against the Chinese occupation in so-called non-violent ways. One of these ways is through self-immolation or setting oneself on fire in public, to protest China’s policies towards Tibet and demand the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet (Soboslai, 2015). A self-immolation is a form of protest that aims to create social change and better social and political rights for Tibetans living within the Tibetan area in China. It is also an effective tool to bring more international attention to the violation of human rights in Tibet and the independence claim of the Tibetan people (Abel & Tsering, 2012).

Self-immolation as a means of resistance is not very widespread or common in Tibetan culture, nor in Buddhism. On the contrary, in Buddhism, the act of suicide is rather controversial, and most Buddhist scholars agree that this is incompatible with the Buddhist teachings of non-violence and not bringing harm to anyone including oneself. However, especially in Indian traditions of Buddhism, there are multiple examples of Buddhist monks sacrificing themselves – sometimes through immolation – for the greater good, i.e., to save the lives of others (Kovan, 2013; Warner, 2014). For example, a particular tale exists about the previous life of the Buddha in which he sacrificed his own life in order to save the life of others through self-immolation. Another notorious case of self-immolation is that of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963. He self-immolated in a public square in Saigon (nowadays Ho Chi Minh City) to protest the human rights violations committed by the Diem regime in South Vietnam (Crosby, Rhee, & Holland, 1977). The motivation for committing self-immolation in these two cases bear remarkable resemblances to the self-immolation cases in Tibet.

The first case of the Buddha himself self-immolating is religious in origin and gives self-immolators the status of a martyr or Buddhist hero since it is a non-violent way to give up one’s own life for the sake of others. This point of view contrasts with Chinese propaganda framing these acts as violent and thus non-Buddhist (Soboslai, 2015). Thus, self-immolation becomes a violent image which is given a religious meaning as justification (Juergensmeyer, 2017). In the farewell letters of those recent self-immolators, we can see ideas of religious sacrifice. Many mention that they sacrifice their lives in the hope that their deed will attract international attention and thus lead to an improvement of living conditions for those staying behind. However, the act of self-immolation in the Tibetan context is too complex to reduce it merely to a religious act of sacrifice. Similar to the case of Thich Quang Duc mentioned above, it also has a political element since it is a direct outcry against human rights violations. Many self-immolators express their wish for an independent Tibetan state and the preservation of Tibetan culture and tradition, which is heavily suppressed by Chinese policy. Therefore, it becomes clear that self-immolation in Tibet is also inspired by nationalistic elements.

Reasons for Self-Immolation: Martyrs for Tibetan Independence

Mills (2012) distinguishes three main reasons why self-immolators choose this drastic method of resistance. First of all, China’s oppressive policies and their patriotic education campaigns force Tibetan monks to denounce the Dalai Lama and accept China’s perception of Tibet as an inseparable part of China, both historically as well as nowadays. Secondly, there is a restriction on teaching and learning the Tibetan language and religion. This explains the predominance of monks, nuns, and students among the self-immolators. Thirdly, most acts of self-immolation are centered in specific areas in Tibet. This indicates that the influence of previous self-immolators is big and the fact that they are being perceived as national heroes also contributes to the decision of self-immolation. Self-immolators often obtain martyr status after their death, with mass funerals and commemorations where people hold posters and photos of the self-immolator (Zarghami, 2012). These posters depict the self-immolators as Tibetan heroes striving for independence. Furthermore, they are mentioned in songs and poetry, and even some places where self-immolation took place are referred to as “Heroes Road” (Makley, 2015).

Also, Tibetans in exile worship self-immolators as heroes. Footage of acts of self-immolation circulates widely in the Tibetan community outside of Tibet together with the testaments of the self-immolators. In Tibetan media outlets they are also referred to as pawo/pamos (heroes/heroines) (Warner, 2014). According to Zarghami (2012), the depiction of self-immolators as heroes in media and public discourse is not that innocent and leads to copycat effects as the concentration of acts of self-immolation in specific areas might prove.

In China, on the other hand, these acts of resistance are framed as a conspiracy initiated by the “Dalai Clique,” a group of separatists who brainwash innocent Tibetans. According to this propaganda, the messages of protesters were not their own, instead, they were being used by the cunning Dalai Lama, who leads a separatist movement in exile, to destabilize China and advocate for Tibetan independence (Makley, 2015). However, the official stance of the Dalai Lama is effective Tibetan autonomy within the PRC instead of independence (Hillman, 2014).

These self-immolations are often framed as religious in origin; however, one should not neglect their nationalist tendency. In the last words of the self-immolators, it becomes clear that their action is not merely a religious act of non-violence but also based on nationalistic aspirations for freeing the Tibetan nation from Chinese occupation and control (Soboslai, 2015). Many testaments of self-immolators call for Tibetan unity and loyalty towards a Tibetan state instead of China. They also urge their readers to only speak Tibetan, wear traditional clothes and preserve the Tibetan culture and traditions which are in danger because of Chinese oppression and occupation. The influx of mostly Han Chinese and Hui into Tibet, and their spreading dominance over the Tibetan economy, also strengthens the belief that Tibetan culture and religion is under threat (Hillman, 2014). This is in line with the rise of Buddhist nationalism in South Asia in general (Mills, 2012; Warner, 2014). Shakya (2012) also agrees on this, a self-immolation is a form of Tibetan nationalism that finds its roots within religion. Therefore, in the next section, I would like to expand more on Buddhist nationalism and how self-immolation is an example of it.

Buddhist Nationalism

As Juergensmeyer (2017) argues, religious nationalism is on the rise, and Buddhist nationalism is not an exception. Juergensmeyer (2017) defines religious nationalism as a combination of beliefs about the modern nation-state with traditional religious convictions of a higher moral authority. Buddhist nationalism first emerged as a form of protest against colonization of the West and more specifically in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) as a response to the British religious and political power (Borchert, 2007; Scott, 2011). In Myanmar too, Buddhist nationalism first emerged as a means of protest against the British colonizer (Lewy, 1972). Therefore, the upsurge of Buddhist nationalism in Tibet can be perceived as a response to China’s tightening security and oppressive policies against Buddhist religious practices and Tibetan traditions and culture.

Scott (2011) defines Buddhist nationalism as “an ideological movement – that identifies itself as belonging to the Buddhist religious tradition – for attaining and maintaining the autonomy, unity, and identity of an existing or potential ‘nation.’” It aims to do this by using Buddhist images and language. Buddhist nationalism is not a new phenomenon; it played an important role in the conflict in Sri Lanka and the persecution of the Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar. It also plays a role in the self-immolation cases in Tibet. After China’s unsuccessful attempts to use Buddhism as a unifying factor to incorporate Tibet into a bigger China (Borchert, 2007), and since the last upsurge of protests in 2008, a rise in Tibetan Buddhist nationalism can be perceived through the acts of self-immolation and the testaments left behind.

The call for loyalty towards a Tibetan state, together with the plea for the return of the Dalai Lama as head of the Tibetan state, is a clear example of Buddhist nationalism (Mills, 2012; Warner, 2014). The demand, made by the self-immolators, to actively preserve and save Tibetan customs, traditions and language is also a clear utterance of Tibetan nationalism. What makes these utterances of nationalism not merely Tibetan, but also Buddhist in nature, is first of all the deep intertwining of Buddhism with Tibetan culture. Secondly, the plea for the Dalai Lama as head of an independent Tibetan state would make this state Buddhist in nature. Thirdly, the current situation in Tibet has many similarities with previous expressions of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka or Myanmar, since it is a form of resistance against China’s occupation of Tibet. Finally, the justification of self-immolation as a Buddhist sacrifice for the greater good, only adds to the perception of these deeds as utterances of religious, and thus Buddhist, nationalism (Juergensmeyer, 2017).


Self-immolation in Tibet saw a remarkable increase that went hand in hand with the tightening of China’s oppressive control of Tibetan territory. Self-immolation is a direct reply to China’s tightening oppression and hostility towards the practice of Tibetan culture, religion and traditions. This bears similarities with other cases of Buddhist nationalism as a means of protest or resistance against oppressive foreign powers. There are a few reasons why self-immolation in the case of Tibet is first and foremost an expression of Buddhist nationalism. First of all, Tibetan culture and Buddhism are deeply intertwined and almost impossible to separate. Also, it can be seen in the plea made by self-immolators for the Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, to become the official head of state of Tibet. Lastly, the martyrdom of self-immolators as sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the Tibetan people, according to Buddhist tradition, gives these deeds a profound Buddhist nationalistic meaning.


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