Burn After Reading

Malcolm Browne was the only Western photojournalist at the spot in downtown Saigon, near a pagoda, where Thich Quang Ðuc sat down and burned to death.

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That was back in 1963. Browne’s photographs remain iconic of the idea of peaceful, powerful protest even today. It’s the stillness in the burning monk that makes Browne’s photographs unforgettable. The flames roar all around an unmoving body that doesn’t even sway from the perfect posture of meditation despite the incredible torment. I can’t imagine anyone looking at those images and not feeling their skin tighten with empathetic pain.

Everyone must have thought the burning monk on Monday when Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan exile, set himself on fire to protest the Chinese president’s visit (Hu Jintao is in Delhi for the BRICS Summit). Unlike Thich Quang Ðuc, however, Jamphel’s was not a silent protest. His strength was not in his stillness. Jamphel set himself on fire and ran through the gathered protesters at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar. There were many photographers and every image shows this boy’s face contorted with pain and flames hellishly haloing his entire body as they burn through useless layers of clothes and skin.

Jamphel died on Wednesday. The New York Times’s India Ink has a copy of his suicide note:

ImageLong Live His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who is the shining example of world peace. We must strive to ensure return of His Holiness to Tibet. I pray and believe that the Tibetan people in and outside Tibet will be united and sing the Tibetan national anthem in front of the Potala Palace.

My fellow Tibetans, when we think about our future happiness and path, we need loyalty. It is the life-soul of a people. It is the spirit to find truth. It is the guide leading to happiness. My fellow Tibetans, if you want equality and happiness as the rest of the world, you must hold onto this word ‘LOYALTY’ towards your country. Loyalty is the wisdom to know truth from falsehood. You must work hard in all your endeavors, big or small.

Freedom is the basis of happiness for all living beings. Without freedom, six million Tibetans are like a butter lamp in the wind, without direction. My fellow Tibetans from Three Provinces, it is clear to us all that if we unitedly put our strength together, there will be result. So, don’t be disheartened.

What I want to convey here is the concern of the six million Tibetans. At a time when we are making our final move toward our goal – if you have money, it is the time to spend it; if you are educated it is the time to produce results; if you have control over your life, I think the day has come to sacrifice your life. The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know about their suffering, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights. If you have any empathy, stand up for the Tibetan people.

We demand freedom to practice our religion and culture. We demand freedom to use our language. We demand the same right as other people living elsewhere in the world. People of the world, stand up for Tibet. Tibet belongs to Tibetans. Victory to Tibet!

According to this article, self-immolation has become a rite of protest for many Tibetans ever since Lama Sobha self-immolated in January 2012. The lama, however, saluted a Tibetan exile who had done this back in 1998. For a reincarnate lama to commit suicide is significant because suicide is charged with tremendous negativity for Tibetans. One who commits suicide disrupts the cycle of rebirth and will not be reincarnated (apparently). This is something that the Chinese Buddhist spokespeople have pointed out repeatedly, suggesting that the Dalai Lama (whose followers are committing protest-suicides) are actually violating Buddhist morality. Before setting fire to himself, the lama recorded an audio message, which has since been translated, transcribed and circulated virally. The message is full of prayers, wishes for a Tibet that can welcome the Dalai Lama back and an explanation of his action. It reinterprets his act of suicide as an offering, rather than a sin. A few excerpts:

I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them – each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts – to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. … I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

I am taking this action neither for myself nor to fulfill a personal desire nor to earn an honor. I am sacrificing my body with the firm conviction and a pure heart just as the Buddha bravely gave his body to a hungry tigress [to stop her from eating her cubs]. All the Tibetan heroes too have sacrificed their lives with similar principles. But in practical terms, their lives seemingly ended with some sort of anger. Therefore, to guide their souls on the path to enlightenment, I offer prayers that may lead all of them to Buddhahood.

May all spiritual teachers and lamas inside Tibet and in exile live long. Especially, I pray that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and remain as Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader. [Lama Sobha recites this long-life prayer for His Holiness.]

You can read the entire translated transcript of his recorded message and find out more about Lama Sobha here.

Meanwhile, in Delhi, the BRICS Summit is on. Tom Wright of the Wall Street Journal has brought joy into many people’s lives today with his photograph of the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh channelling Dr. Dre. No one seems to know why this summit is being held but hey, the Malaysian curry at the media centre is reportedly excellent. Someone made the astute observation that it’s a good thing Brazil is in BRICS instead of Portugal because that would have been perhaps too transparent.

I’m not sure what plans have been made for Jamphel’s funeral or what obstacles will be set for those mourning his death. Tibetan protesters continue to be arrested and the Indian government is doing its best to make it seem as though the only thing Tibetan exiles do in India is serve up happy-making momos. While I’m not certain of this but it seems to me that Jamphel’s death hasn’t grabbed even half the attention that Salman Rushdie got when he spoke at the recent India Today Conclave. The freedom of speech campaigners were out in full force for Rushdie, who gave a pretty shoddy speech (imagine how bad it has to be for a fangirl like me to say this). There were tweets, telecasts, blah blah blah, in his support. Jamphel’s death and the arrest of Tibetan protesters, on the other hand, have barely been discussed. As someone said, “He doesn’t even have a hashtag”, which in the viral age is as insignificant as something can get. He isn’t a trending topic and hey, even I’ve been a trending topic. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the Indian government’s notion of freedom of speech is deeply skewed, we’re such slackers when it comes to actually exercising our rights. You don’t really need to censor the internet or anything else in this country. It seems we’re entirely too lazy to dissent.

Some years ago, Malcolm Browne talked about the famous burning monk photo for a book titled Reporting America at War: An Oral History.

It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end. At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed, but you could see from his expression that he was exposed to intense agony, and that he was dying on the spot — and then, in the end, when the body was rigidly burned, they couldn’t stuff him into a casket because he was splayed out in all directions. As shock photography goes, it was hard to beat. It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. If one wants to be gruesome about it, it was a very easy sequence of pictures to take. …

I’ve been asked a couple times whether I could have prevented the suicide. I could not. There was a phalanx of perhaps two hundred monks and nuns who were ready to block me if I tried to move. A couple of them chucked themselves under the wheels of a fire truck that arrived. But in the years since, I’ve had this searing feeling of perhaps having in some way contributed to the death of a kind old man who probably would not have done what he did — nor would the monks in general have done what they did — if they had not been assured of the presence of a newsman who could convey the images and experience to the outer world. Because that was the whole point — to produce theater of the horrible so striking that the reasons for the demonstrations would become apparent to everyone. And, of course, they did. The following day, President Kennedy had the photograph on his desk, and he called in Henry Cabot Lodge, who was about to leave for Saigon as U.S. ambassador, and told him, in effect, “This sort of thing has got to stop.” And that was the beginning of the end of American support for the Ngo Dinh Diem regime.

Who knows what the future holds but at present, it seems no such consolation exists for the deaths of Lama Sobha or Jamphel Yeshi.

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Updated to add: At least 316 Tibetans have been detained in Tihar Jail since Monday. Majnu ka Tila, which is like Little Tibet in Delhi, has been placed under Section 144, which means everyone is under virtual house arrest.

Swadesh Pal, a senior officer at Delhi Police, said about 150 police officers, including many from the central rapid-action police force, were stationed in Majnu Ka Tila from Monday.

Speaking outside the neighborhood’s main gate, Mr. Pal said they have been authorized “to detain any Tibetan activist who attempts to stage protests, hold gathering or violates law and order.” He added that no resident had yet been held and that the restrictions would be lifted shortly after Mr. Hu’s departure.

Read more in this Wall Street Journal report on how Tibetans are being treated in the Indian capital.