Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 2 August 2020


The Tibetan Town That Became the Self-Immolation Capital of the World

Buddhist monks on their way to celebrate a festival at Kirti Monastery.
Buddhist monks on their way to celebrate a festival at Kirti Monastery. Credit... Gilles SabriƩ
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Life and Death in a Tibetan Town
By Barbara Demick
Tibetans encountered Chinese Communists for the first time during the Long March of the mid-1930s, when Mao’s Red Army evaded the Nationalist forces by heading west and north through the Tibetan plateau. The famished Chinese soldiers picked the fields bare. They stole yaks, sheep and grain (though some of them, reluctant to jettison the Communist principle of helping the rural poor, left i.o.u.s). They swept through monasteries, melting down copper urns for shrapnel, ripping up floorboards for firewood, sitting on sacred scroll paintings and eating boiled yak hide torn from temple drums. They were delighted to discover that tormas — votive offerings made of barley flour and butter — were also edible. Some tormas are sculpted in human form, and the soldiers, assuming they were committing a sacrilege but too hungry to care, believed they were eating statues of the Buddha.
Hence the title of “Eat the Buddha,” a brilliantly reported and eye-opening work of narrative nonfiction by Barbara Demick, the former Beijing bureau chief of The Los Angeles Times, on the history of Tibetan resistance to Chinese domination. Demick centers the book in and around the town of Ngaba, on the eastern plateau. I was initially disappointed to learn that Ngaba isn’t in the Tibet Autonomous Region — the territory, governed by China, whose capital is Lhasa and which most of us think of as Tibet — but rather in Sichuan, one of the four Chinese provinces in which the majority of Tibetans live. I assumed that Demick hadn’t focused on the TAR because of access problems: Visiting journalists must obtain permission from the Chinese government, which is rarely granted, and are usually required to travel with supervised tours. But it soon became apparent that Ngaba — which has access challenges of its own, though more surmountable ones — was exactly the right place to write about. Nowhere else, inside or outside the TAR, has been a more intense hotbed of Tibetan political unrest.
Ngaba currently has steel barricades at the entrances to town and surveillance cameras that record the license plates of all cars arriving and leaving, and, by one count, some 50,000 security personnel. (The town’s population is around 15,000.) Demick guides us through the phases of oppression and defiance, decade by appalling decade, which have led the Chinese government to exert such heavy-handed control.
Barbara Demick
Barbara Demick Credit... Madeleine Grant
In the 1930s, the Red Army brought famine; the local residents fought back with spears, flintlocks and muskets. In 1958, at the beginning of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Chinese government deposed a beloved regional king, forced the local people into collective farms, confiscated livestock, closed markets, requisitioned or destroyed the monasteries and beat or shot those who refused to fall in line. Thousands starved. Demick writes, “Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay — ’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number.”
Ten years later, the people of Ngaba rose up in a bloody rebellion that ended with mass arrests and more than 50 deaths. During the late 1980s, Ngaba residents who made or posted fliers supporting the Dalai Lama — their spiritual leader, who had fled Tibet for India in 1959 — were imprisoned. In 2008, in another Ngaba uprising, at least a dozen people were killed.
The cycle of resistance, crackdown, resistance, crackdown — with the crackdowns serving mainly as goads for further resistance — culminated when locals, most of them current or former monks from Ngaba’s Kirti Monastery, found a new and uniquely public way to protest Chinese rule and call for the return of the Dalai Lama. In 2009, they started setting themselves on fire. Over the next 10 years, nearly a third of Tibet’s 156 self-immolations would take place in or near Ngaba. Many of the self-immolators have been the grandchildren of men who bore arms in earlier uprisings. “The older generation produced the fighters,” Demick writes. “The younger people, educated during the time of the 14th Dalai Lama, took his teachings about nonviolence to heart. They couldn’t bring themselves to kill anyone but themselves.”
The first monk to attempt self-immolation survived, but his successors upped their chances of success by swallowing gasoline as well as dousing themselves in it and wrapping themselves in wire-trussed quilts. Ngaba — “this nothing little town that had just gotten its first traffic light” — became the self-immolation capital of the world.
The Chinese government, angered by the latest threat to stability in a chronically troublesome region, barricaded the monastery, brought in paramilitary troops, made hundreds of arrests and cut off Ngaba’s internet. Nonetheless, the deaths of many self-immolators found their way to YouTube. “In the videos from Ngaba,” Demick writes, “one streaks down a dimly lit gray street like a fireball. Another twitches and crumples like a piece of paper thrown into a fireplace. Those whose bodies are completely consumed shrivel as small as children, blackened and twisting.”
The chapters on the self-immolations are the heart of “Eat the Buddha” — the terrible climax for which Demick has prepared us through her recounting of more than 60 years of religious repression and human rights abuses. There’s a good deal of exposition, all of it essential, but whenever possible, she presents Ngaba’s brutal history through the stories of individual characters, the technique pioneered by John Hersey in “Hiroshima.” (Hersey took the idea from the Thornton Wilder novel “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” which he read on his ship en route to Japan.) I occasionally felt I needed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of all the players, some of whom vanish for long stretches — in one case, for more than 100 pages — before re-entering the narrative. But Demick, who used the same technique to excellent effect in her previous books (“Logavina Street,” about Sarajevo, and “Nothing to Envy,” about North Korea), knows what she’s doing.
As “Eat the Buddha” unfolds, we come to understand why she has introduced this particular cast in sufficient detail to make us care about them. They aren’t just a representative sampling of Ngaba residents; they are people who have intersected with history. For instance, the woman who sold counterfeit Nike sneakers turns out to be a witness to Ngaba’s first, failed self-immolation; after the would-be martyr’s robes burned and his face turned black, she saw Chinese soldiers toss him into the back of a truck, “like an animal.” The young monk who was given his first bath at age 7 after his mother brought him to the Kirti Monastery turns out to be a close friend of the second self-immolator and the half brother of the 21st. We are heartbroken by that last death, as we couldn’t be if we read about it in a newspaper headline, because we’ve heard about the summer the brothers spent herding yaks in the hills, sharing a black felt tent and, when September came, making snow angels together.
I realized early on — though probably later than some more alert readers — that the end of the story for all the major characters would be Dharamsala, India, the community of 100,000 Tibetans that is the home of their government-in-exile. Of course it would be. They couldn’t still live in Ngaba, since they would not have been safe from retribution if Demick had interviewed them there. (She visited Ngaba three times, but almost all her local sources are unnamed.) Because they couldn’t obtain passports, most of them made their way to Dharamsala via various illegal trajectories, some of them extortionately expensive, some hair-raising, some both. They are now able to discuss politics, to worship without restrictions, to display portraits of their spiritual leader. (And to see him in person. The Dalai Lama has lived there since 1960.)
But India is no paradise; more exiles are returning to Tibet than leaving it. Demick writes of Dharamsala, “I met many Tibetans spinning with indecision. Their families send them photos on WeChat of new cars and motorcycles, remodeled houses and appliances” — the perks of China’s economic boom. On the other side of the balance there is the businessman in Ngaba, the owner of an SUV, an iPhone and an iPad, who tells Demick in the final chapter of this harrowing but necessary book, “I have everything I might possibly want in life, but my freedom.”

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