On March 3, 2012, 19-year-old Tsering Kyi returned to school from winter holidays, purchased a can of gas, and set herself on fire in a busy market in Machu, in the Gannan province of China. Kyi held still, fist raised, her body ablaze, for several moments before collapsing to the ground.
Kyi was raised in a nomadic Tibetan family, and attended Tibetan school in a town several miles away from where her family lived. According to news reports, she was a dedicated student, simultaneously passionate about her education, and committed to her family and religious practice.
In 2010, Kyi joined students and teachers at her school to protest new Chinese-language textbooks and the government decision to limit Tibetan-language teaching to a single class. The protests only resulted in more government control: Several of Kyi’s teachers, as well as her headmaster, were subsequently fired and replaced. Kyi is reported to have told a close relative in early January of this year that she understood the motivations behind the growing numbers of self-immolations in Tibet and China – that “no one could go on living like this.”
Over 30 Tibetan monks, nuns and civilians in Tibet, China and India have self-immolated over the past year, in protest of an increasingly repressive and violent Chinese regime that aims to assimilate Tibetan language, culture and religious practice.
In March 2012, the Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC) issued a statement that referenced the militarized 1912 struggle for Tibetan freedom from the invading imperial Chinese Army. After a year of fierce fighting, the statement says, “Tibet regained its status as an independent nation.” Later on down the page, the TYC asserts that, a century later, the contemporary struggle for Tibetan independence has reached and passed a similar snapping point.
The Dalai Lama has not condoned or condemned the self-immolations. He instead referred to them as a “very, very sensitive political issue” in a recent BBC interview, and has been quoted by China’s Forbidden News as saying that the self-immolations were acts of desperation, a direct result of the Chinese Communist Party’s policy of cultural genocide in Tibet. While the Dalai Lama remains a spiritual leader to millions of Tibetans around the world, he recently stepped down as a political leader, admitting that his 50-year strategy of advocating non-violence had failed to established understanding with the Chinese government, or improve the situation inside Tibet.
The Tibetan Youth Congress has been more vocal about why the self-immolations are happening now, and what they mean for the fight for Tibetan independence. On April 12, 2012, they said: “Just as with the hardened earth and the grassy patches and the dusty grounds and the concrete sidewalks onto which have collapsed the 33 self-immolators (32 of them since last year alone), embers rolling out from their bodies as though rosary beads, the landscape of the Tibetan freedom movement now stands irreparably scorched and irredeemably altered.”