Self Immolation – A Fiery Statement

Tribhuvan International Airport in Nepal is seemingly the eighth most hated airport in the world. Pilots hate it because of its reputation for both updrafts and down drafts and travellers hate it because of its history of unsafe landings. In a recent crash in September 2012, 19 died, including seven Britons, when a plane operated by Sita Air came down minutes after take-off and crashed on the outskirts of the city.
Tribhuvan Airport serves the Nepalese capital Kathmandu which at 4,600 ft is an ideal city to spend some time acclimatising before journeying on to Himalayan treks and even Mount Everest.

The descent to the runway is sudden and dramatic due to the surrounding peaks.  During the monsoon season the aircraft plunges out of thick cloud at an extreme angle and on final approach it is difficult to avoid looking at the dozens of wrecked aircraft which line the perimeter fence.

On landing, the Nepalese, who are in general a friendly and kind people, do their very best to welcome passengers but since the infrastructure last had a make up some decades ago even that is an uneasy experience.

Airport security is evident. After all this is the age of the terrorist. However many passengers feel unease at the lone soldier in the terminal building armed with nothing but a kukri and a large double barrelled shotgun.

Kathmandu itself however is well worth the journey. A mix of Hindu and Buddhist, a superb cultural experience, a sensual delight and of course a jumping off point for those wanting to visit Tibet.

Many Tibetan refugees live in Nepal. Many inhabit houses and own businesses in the Boudhanath Stupa area. It’s a holy site.  The surrounding streets and narrow alleys are lined with colourful homes, Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, cafes and street vendors.

The Stupa was probably built in the 14th century after the Mughal invasions.  After the arrival of many thousands of Tibetans following the 1959 Chinese “Peaceful Liberation of Tibet” the temple area has become one of the most important centres of Tibetan Buddhism. Today, alongside the traditional Tibetan holy places such as Mount Kailash and the Jhokang in Lhasa it remains a place of pilgrimage and meditation for Tibetan Buddhists and local Nepalese, as well as a popular tourist site.

During the festival of Losar (Tibetan New Year) barely a week ago, a man in his mid 20’s doused himself with petrol in a restaurant washroom next to Kathmandu’s Boudhanath Stupa, ran outside and set himself alight. A Tibetan exile living in Nepal, he died due to his injuries. His body had 96 percent burns according to Bhagawan Koirala, director of Tribhuvan University Teaching Hospital in Kathmahandu.

According to sources, Sagar Satyal, manager of Golden Eyes Restaurant and Café, said he was opening his roof-top eatery on the third floor of a building in the Boudhantah Stupa complex on that Wednesday morning when the man walked in and raised his little finger—a signal that he wanted to use a toilet. “He looked like a Tibetan monk” because he couldn’t speak Nepali properly and was visiting the restaurant for the first time, Mr. Satyal said. “He looked normal—no anger or any expression on his face.”
Mr. Satyal is widely reported to have seen the man leave the restaurant two to three minutes after using the toilet. Then he heard a commotion outside and walked onto the restaurant’s terrace. “I saw that the man had set himself on fire and he was running,”.  Mr Satyal told bystanders and reporters that he didn’t hear the man crying or shouting. He called the police station a few streets away. Constables immediately rushed to the site and took the man away in an ambulance, he said. The man had run about 30 meters from the restaurant building into the circle of the complex when a group of people stopped him, Mr. Satyal commented to bystanders “They took off the burning jacket from his body and tried to douse the fire on his body by their hands”  “He was on fire for about five minutes.”
Afterward, Mr. Satyal and his colleagues were quoted as having found the backpack the man had been carrying plus a yellow plastic can that can hold up to 20 litres of liquid lying on the floor of the restaurant’s toilet. Seemingly the liquid left in the can smelled of petrol.

Tibetan activists afterwards said the incident highlights the continuing spate of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting against what they see as China’s repressive regime in their homeland. In the past year there may have been over 100 such self immolations related to such protests. Most of those have been within the Tibetan area of China and bordering provinces.

Nepal’s government views Tibet as part of China and has said it won’t tolerate any anti-China protests. In the past, Nepalese authorities have cracked down on such protests and demonstrations by exiled Tibetans and even Nepalese sympathisers. So despite empathy for the Tibetan cause within Nepal the official line is clear and is aligned with the Chinese view that Tibet does not exist as a sovereign country.

For its part, Beijing blames the immolation protests on the Dalai Lama and accuses him of being a “splittist” and supporter of violent separatism within China.

The Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, has stated publicly “We are totally committed to the non-violence principle”, reiterating his line that he wants true autonomy for Tibet, not independence from China.

Whatever view of the matter of the plight of the Tibetan people you choose to support the intentional taking of one’s own life in such an horrific and headline grabbing way surely must be worth a closer look.


About Duncan Harley

Author, photographer and feature writer.
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