It’s hard to mistake a Himalayan November for spring. Frustation in the Chinese-run region of Tibet appears to be making a democracy push this month anyway. It’s not clear if it’s a series of individual acts, or something organized, but in just the past week five people have set themselves on fire in Tibet, for a total of 20 just this month, most in small if dramatic, deadly demonstrations.
The suicides recall a series of similar immolations in Tunisia, which set off the then-called Arab Spring. Multiple reports, most of them regional, note that 81 Tibetans have taken the extreme step of setting themselves on fire in public since 2009, and the issue has surfaced in international circles from time to time.
But we’ve never seen anything recent like this month’s surge, which, perhaps coincidentally, is happening amid a change of leadership in Beijing. Some of the incidents have been reported, at least outside China, by national news service Xinhua.
Inevitably, there are experts. Last year, Foreign Policy had a useful backgrounder on whether this sort of statement works, and spoke with sociologist Sharon Erickson Nepstad, who had studied cases:
Mahatma Gandhi based his theory of civil disobedience on the Hindu concept of tapasya, the embrace of suffering in the service of a higher cause. (The word literally means “heat.”) People sometimes forget, Nepstad says, that Gandhi regarded his activist followers as “nonviolent warriors,” ready to die for their cause even as they rejected attacks against others. Intriguingly, as Nepstad points out, those three Americans who killed themselves to protest the Vietnam War were two Quakers and a left-wing Catholic, all of them members of avowedly pacifist groups.