Joshua Eaton

Independent Journalist

Have 100 Tibetans Really Self-Immolated?

Lobsang Namgyal

Lobsang Namgyal, the latest Tibetan to self-immolate inside Tibet.

YESTERDAY we learned that 37-year-old Lobsang Namgyal self-immolated in Ngaba City on 3 February. The Central Tibetan Administration, the International Campaign for Tibet, and Free Tibet all referred to it as the 100th self-immolation in Tibet. Several media outlets followed their lead, including Radio Free Asia and the New York Times.

But have 100 Tibetans really self-immolated? It depends on how you count.

I spent the morning going through the various lists of self-immolations compiled by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), and Free Tibet. I’ve also included some information from a detailed count (though not a complete list) by the famous Tibetan journalist, blogger, and poet Tsering Woeser, who’s based in Beijing. Here’s the fruit of my labors:

A Comparison of Lists of Self-Immolators in Tibet (February 2009 to Present)

There are five main differences among the lists and counts:

  • Woeser includes an unconfirmed dual self-immolation—that of Thubten Nyandak and his niece, Atse—in her count. ICT lists this self-immolation, but they do not include it in their final count. Both CTA and Free Tibet ignore it altogether. There are conflicting reports about whether this was an intentional self-immolation or an accidental house fire. However, Woeser has argued forcefully for including it on lists of self-immolations and in the final count.
  • CTA, ICT, and Free Tibet all list Passang Lhamo, who self-immolated in Beijing on 13 September 2012. However, Free Tibet does not include her in their final count, whereas CTA and ICT do. There’s a very simple reason for that: Free Tibet does not believe that Tibet is or should be a part of China, whereas both CTA and ICT do. It’s a question of whether or not a self-immolation in Beijing should be grouped in with the self-immolations in Tibet (since they’re both a part of China) or with the self-immolations in exile communities in India and Nepal (since they’re all outside of occupied Tibet).
  • Free Tibet includes two Sangay Tashis. According to Free Tibet, they were the same age, self-immolated in the same place, shouted the same slogans while self-immolating, and are both deceased. However, one self-immolated on 26 October and the other 29 November. This is probably a duplicate entry. What likely happend is that they got an initial report about the incident, posted it to their list, but then failed to delete it when they confirmed the initial report and re-posted the updated information a month later. In any case, no one else lists this self-immolation.
  • Free Tibet doesn’t list Wangchen Norbu, whereas both CTA and ICT do. I have no idea why, but there is not good reason not to include this self-immolation. I believe it’s probably just a simple oversight.
  • Free Tibet includes Jigji Kyab in their list, whereas CTA and ICT do not. (I’m still waiting to hear back from Tsering Woeser about whether or not she included him in her final count.) Kyab died from intentionally consuming fox poison as he was attempting to self-immolate. We know he was trying to self-immolate because his body was found near a busy intersection, covered in gasoline and with a lighter in each hand. He also left a note next to his bed that said he was self-immolating and explained why.

So, how many Tibetans have self-immolated? Woeser says 102. Everyone else says 100, but they get to that number in two different ways. CTA and ICT both get to 100 by including Passang Lhamo and Wangchen Norbu but leaving off Jigji Kyab. Meanwhile, Free Tibet gets to 100 by leaving off Passang Lhano (probably intentionally) and Wangchen Norbu (probably unintentionally) but including both Jigji Kyab and a second (probably unintentional) Sangay Tashi.

With the exception of the dual case of Thubten Nyandak and Atse, everyone seems to agree on what self-immolations have happened. They just disagree on who to included on what lists and in what counts.

It should be obvious by now that Free Tibet’s list is generally the least reliable.* CTA’s is reliable but restrictive. That means ICT’s is probably the best for English speakers who don’t want to brave Woeser’s website via Google Translate and cross-reference it with other lists, as I did. ICT’s is also the most well-formated and easy to use.

Woeser’s count is, by far, the most inclusive and meticulous. And she’s told me that she is working on a full list that will include the names and details of all the Tibetans who have self-immolated so far. It will probably be the most meticulous and accurate list available. However, it will also be in Mandarin Chinese. Hopefully someone will translate it into English shortly after it’s published.

* Update (20 February 2013): After posting this I spoke with someone at Free Tibet. They independently source all their own information, which led to the duplicate Sangay Tashi entry and the unintentional exclusion of Wangchen Norbu from their list during the rush of self-immolations in November 2012. They’ve since removed the duplicate entry and independently confirmed Wangchen Norbu’s self-immolation. Both mistakes were completely understandable given the circumstances, and both have been corrected. I’m really impressed with the speed and professionalism with which they acted. I still prefer the format of ICT’s list, but I’ll definitely use Free Tibet’s information in the future without reservations. It is always, always best to use information cross-referenced from multiple sources.

3 Comments

  1. it will definitely be translated.

  2. of course china doesn’t care …

  3. What can be done? I know this is a naive question, yet in light of China’s growing hegemony of Tibet the situation seems intractable from the perspective of Tibetan liberation, at least within- with- the current ‘facts on the ground’ and the US – the world’s largest hegemonic force – certainly is in no ‘mood’ to assist the Tibetans as China is its major trading ‘partner.’ However, to move beyond the liberation of Tibet is a ‘becoming-with’ co-habitation possible in a truly autonomous state of Tibet federated with China? What are your thoughts – best to email them to me as I am rarely on the blog-o-sphere – many many thanks for your work and apologies in advance for my unlearned questions!

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