Objects of Geopolitics – The Burning Body

News has emerged from Tibet that on the 16th of December 34 year old Sangyal Khar died after setting himself on fire in front of a police station in Amchok in Gansu province. Sangyal is not the first Tibetan to set his body alight in protest. He is the 134th since 2009 to participate in the fatal protest of self-immolation.

Self-immolation derives from the Latin word for sacrifice, immolatio. Therefore the term literally means self-sacrifice. This deed involves offering oneself on behalf of society. According to Fierke, the suffering body communicates the injustice experienced by the community to a larger audience. Chas Morrison argues that the deeds are also symbolic acts of extreme defiance that seek to delegitimise the state by subverting its monopoly on violence. The act allows a person to take back control over one’s body, one’s death and freedom to choose between the two. It also helps to strengthen the nation under its repressor as these astonishing acts bring people together, solidifying a collective identity. Very few perpetrators show common suicidal tendencies before the event. The catalyst for suicide is usually interpreted as being personal and private, whereas self-immolation is selfless, an act for the cause, the wider nation. It is only in recent years that the term has become commonly associated with burning the body.

The thinking behind self-immolation can be explained using Michael Foucault’s concept of Biopolitics and Stuart Murray’s notion of Thanatapolitics. Biopolitics is politics organised by and for the control and regulation of life. According to Foucault “It is the attempt, starting from the 18th century, to rationalise the problems posed to governmental practice by phenomena characteristic of a set of living beings forming a population, such as health, hygiene, birth rate, life expectancy.” It is the change in attitude of western governments in the 18th century from take life or let live to make live and let die. In contrast to Foucault’s concept, the politics of life, Murray’s Thanatapolitics is the politics of death, where death becomes the ultimate political protest. It is a response and a resistance to Biopolitical power. The very possibility for Biopolitical regulation and control is destroyed. Therefore, in this understanding, death is beyond the reach of power. Self-immolation can be seen as an example of Thanatapolitics.

Self-immolation has been seen as an effective method of Thanatapolitical, geopolitical protest in the Arab region.  In December 2010, a market seller Mohammed Bouazizi set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. This one daring deed has been interpreted as the catalyst for the radical Arab Spring. However, from 2009 to the present day, 134 Tibetans have performed the same act, with far less media attention and no strategic gains. The self-immolators are protesting against the repressive regime of the Chinese government. Tibet was an independent state until the unprovoked invasion of the People’s Republic of China in 1950. Repression of the Tibetan people followed, resulting in the fleeing of the Dalai Lama and 80,000 Tibetans over the Himalayas to India in 1959. In 1965, the country was divided. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) was created, only including one third of historical Tibet, U-Tsang province. Kham and Amdo provinces were incorporated into the Chinese provinces of Quinghai, Gansu, Sichuan and Yunnan, splitting and isolating the Tibetan population in these regions.


(Map showing Self-immolations across historical Tibet 2009-2013)


Repression and discrimination of Tibetans in China has continued and intensified to the present day. Earlier this year, the US think tank, Freedom House, ranked Tibet amongst the 12 worst countries in the world for repression of political and civil rights. Others in this category were Syria, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia. Tibetans in China cannot move freely and are under constant surveillance. They cannot speak their native language, dress in traditional clothes, freely practice Buddhism or have a picture of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Any opposition, even peaceful protest, is met with disappearances, imprisonment, torture or execution – as seen in the recent arrest and conviction of Tibetan singers. This cultural genocide means Tibetans in China cannot be Tibetan.

There is no evidence of self-immolation throughout Tibetan history. Buddhism places substantial emphasis on cultivating respect for life, including human life. However, when justifying self-immolation, many monks quote the story of the Buddha and the Tigress. In a previous life the Buddha took pity on a starving Tigress who might otherwise eat her new born cubs, therefore he sacrificed himself to the Tigress. The moral of this story is that even though Buddhism abhors self-inflicted violence, it can be justified if the sacrifice is for the greater good.

The occurrences of self-immolation have predominantly been in traditional eastern Tibet, outside the TAR. Most of the self-immolators have been young men, but about a quarter have been women. They also come from all walks of life, monks, nuns, farmers, writers, students and musicians. The event is very public. The individual pours petrol over themselves, sometimes drinking some, before setting themselves alight. While they burn they shout for the return of the Dalai Lama and for the freedom of Tibetans. Many leave notes, explaining their actions, so there is no doubt in their motives. The Dalai Lama, has discouraged the practice. He promotes non-violent means of protest to the middle way approach.

The Chinese state controlled media have repeated the simplistic line that the self-immolators are “violent, ungrateful Tibetan separatists that seek to destabilise and undermine the sovereignty and integrity of China as a result of foreign influence (the Dalai Lama) and isolationist aims fostered in Tibet’s unruly and barbarous religious culture”. They have also gone as far to call them “terrorists” which seems disproportionate, given that self-immolation does not threaten violence against innocent people. The act is only violent towards the perpetrator.

Tibetan self-immolation is a controversial individual sacrifice for the wider nation rather than a suicide. It is a political protest against the repressive regime and cultural genocide by the Chinese government. It is a thanatapolitical act, which thereby defies the biopolitical control of the government, rejects and delegitimises the state authority, and ultimately serves to embarrass China. But the act also bringing together the Tibetan nation. The difficulty is publicising their message to the world. The Chinese government place suffocating restrictions on media. It has been reported that there are more journalists in North Korea than in Tibet. Perhaps this small blog post will contribute to raising awareness of the hidden occurrences in Tibet.

By Eleanor Cotterill

Eleanor is  a Swansea University Geography graduate who is currently studying Geopolitics and Security at Royal Holloway. Her research interests include the geopolitical issues in the Himalayan region, especially those regarding borders, resources (particularly water) and territory.



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