“It hurts me that I was born in India”, says Migmer Tsering, a 26-year-old Tibetan exile who was born and brought up in New Delhi. “I never saw my own country, besides in the stories of family members and teachers. I am always afraid that I will die outside of Tibet, without ever having been there.”
Tsering’s voice trembles with emotional when he speaks of Tibet, the homeland his parents fled as small children in the 1950s. And he's just proved the sincerity of his emotional ties to Tibet in a horrific way: last month, Tsering stood outside the Chinese Embassy in New Delhi and then set fire to himself. Police rushed to his aid and he survived but his legs are badly burnt. He's just returned home after a month in hospital, both legs in thick bandages, and he’s still hardly able to walk.
“I wanted to send out a strong message, so that the world knows that there are human rights violations in Tibet and China. I strongly felt that if I do something here, (in front of the embassy) it will be useful for our cause.”
Burning themselves for a cause
That cause, says Tsering, “is a free Tibet and the return of spiritual leader the Dalai Lama to Tibet.” Self immolation seems to be turning into an alarming trend. Since March this year, twelve Tibetans – many of them from from Kirti monastary in north western Sichuan – have set fire to themselves. So far, seven of them have died, while the whereabouts of those taken to hospitals are unknown. And according to international human rights organizations, an additional 300 monks have been arrested in response.
Both the Dalai Lama and Lobsang Sangay, the newly elected Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala, India, have said that they do not encourage the self-immolations, stating that China will only respond with more repression.
But Tsering, who has been a full-time activist for the past seven years, felt inspired. “Sure, I of course knew that if I would die, that Tibet would not immediately be free, but I do think that my act makes a small difference. Already a lot of media coverage has been there.”
Tsering’s cousin Sonam Peldon, 29, who had been sitting silently next to his chair so far, shakes her head. “We have always supported him in his activism, but this time he went too far”. Peldon is a traditional Tibetan herbalist, and since Tsering’s father died five years ago, Tsering has been living with her and her mother, his aunt. His own mother divorced his father when he was only two years old and currently lives in Canada.
“I promised my father that whatever I will do in my life, will be for the freedom of Tibet,” Tsering says, passionately. “We lost our country on March 10, and I was born on March 11. I believe that I was born on that day to get our freedom back.”
But his cousin Peldon shakes her head again. “Our family always follows what the Dalai Lama says but that day, he did not only hurt himself, but his entire family. We were so worried.”
The argument between the two cousins illustrates the division within the entire Tibetan community. Some argue that self-immolation goes against the Buddhist ideas of non¬-violence, while others, such as Tsering, believe that it is a necessary sacrifice.
“I really respect what His Holiness and our PM said. They want to save our people and our culture. But we feel that what we did is helpful for our people. For years we have done the same things. We protest and demonstrate, but it has not worked. After more than 52 years, we are still in India. I see many older people waiting to go back to Tibet, but then they die with that dream. I don’t want to die with that dream. On 4 November I thought that if I die now, for Tibet, than it will be like being in Tibet.”