Saturday, July 27, 2013

Tibet, China, protest immolation and social medicine



This is a summary of a chapter published in Advances in Medical Sociology; Vol 15; Ecological Health; edited by Dr Maya Gislason; ISBN: 978-1-78190-323-0 (Emerald Press). I also published on this topic in 2015 in Tibetan Review.

In October 2012 I submitted a paper to the 4th biannual conference of the International Association of Ecology and Health, held in Kunming, Yunnan, China. This was shortly before the appointment of the new Chinese head of state, Paramount Leader Xi Jinping, and thus an unusually sensitive time. My rejected abstract proposed a link between public self-immolation — suicide and protest by burning — and “eco-social” distress. It was scored as 0/5 – not warranting presentation even as a poster. As a co-editor of the journal (since 2010) and as an invited keynote speaker at the second annual conference (held in Mexico in 2008) this score was certainly unusual.
However, although my abstract scrupulously avoided mention of either China or Tibet my motivation was in fact to express sympathy and concern about the rate of protest self-immolation by Tibetans in China. At that time about 50 people had died this way, an extraordinarily high rate considering there are only about 6 million ethnic Tibetans living in China. In the following ten months (as I wrote this) this number has  more than doubled. A few Tibetans living in exile in India and Nepal have also self-immolated in sympathy.
In India, suicide by fire is an ancient custom, but there is no Tibetan equivalent, perhaps because of the scarcity of firewood, and the consequent rarity of cremation. Most cases of self-immolation in China were originally in Sichuan but more recently, their focus has shifted to the north, to Guansu and Qinghai (see figure in the chapter), these are Chinese provinces with significant Tibetan minorities. A full list Tibetan protest-immolations is available on the web.

Protest self-immolation
Protest self-immolation has a long history. Some, unlike in China to date, have had significant political impacts, most notably in Vietnam in 1963 and Tunisia in 2010. In 2014 it spread to Australia, when a Tamil asylum seeker from Sri Lanka had his application frozen.
The Oxford sociologist Michael Biggs has tabulated over 500 acts of protest self-immolation occurring between 1963 and 2002, with the highest rate among Kurds. But the highest number occurred in 1990 in India, when in only ten weeks over 200 people self-immolated. These were mostly students protesting at affirmative action aimed at redressing entrenched Indian inequality, thus threatening to reduce access to university and civil service positions to some from more privileged castes. However, in India, self-death by fire is mostly not political protest, but the third most common method of private suicide, after poisoning (often with pesticides) and hanging. Recently, young Bulgarians have been committing self-immolation, to protest deepening poverty and inequality in one of the most deprived parts of Europe.
Outside India, self-immolation retains its capacity to shock and horrify. But few political self-immolations have achieved their desired reforming effect, including, to date, those by Tibetans. Although Tibetan suicides have generated considerable publicity in some countries, they have scarcely been reported in China and seem to have had negligible influence. Some Chinese spokespeople attribute its cause to appeals from the Dalai Lama, absurdly claiming that this Nobel Peace Laureate and spiritual leader is orchestrating self-immolation.

My chapter outlines links between ecology (including dreadful reduction in its once vast wildlife) and human well-being, Chinese oppression of ethnic Tibetans, and the pathways of despair and hope that drive self-immolation, including for Tibetans. It documents Chinese indifference to their desperation and predicts the practice will decline as Tibetans realise it's not changing anything. It argues that this tragic issue is a legitimate part of social medicine and also EcoHealth, including through the legacy of Rudolf Vichow.


I also lament the collective (if perhaps understandable) timidity of the International Association for Ecology and Health, who despite proclaiming a concern for social justice and oppressed people, instead bowed before the powerful East Wind, at least on this occasion.

PS In an interview published on June 17, 2016, His Holiness the Karmapa clearly recommended against the practice of protest self-immolation in Tibet. I strongly support his opinion.