Tsewang Norbu is the 158th Tibetan to have set himself on fire in Tibet as a form of protest against Chinese oppression
It’s been a little over a month since the news of a Tibetan self-immolation in front of the historic Potala Palace in Lhasa reached the outside world.
And it wasn’t until 5 March that Tibetan news media in exile were able to name the lone protestor. On 4 March, Radio Free Asia reported that popular Tibetan musician 25-year-old Tsewang Norbu has been identified as a self-immolator.
Tibetans in exile are saying that the lack of freedom inside Tibet and the severe policies around censorship are forcing Tibetans like Tsewang Norbu to take such drastic actions, sacrificing their life for their country.
Demanding an end to the Chinese government’s oppressive policies about Tibet, Tibetans in exile say that the difficulty in confirming the news about Tsewang Norbu is proof of Chinese atrocities and lack of freedom of speech in Tibet.
Norbu soaked his body in inflammable kerosene and let the flame consume his flesh while “protesting against the oppressive and repressive policies imposed by the Chinese in Tibet”, said Gonpo Dhundup, the president of the Tibetan Youth Congress.
Norbu is the 158th Tibetan inside Tibet to have set himself on fire as a form of protest. Ten Tibetans in exile have also self-immolated over the last two decades.
Since the 1950s, Tibetans in Tibet and exile have been protesting against the occupation and the human rights violations in Tibet through peaceful demonstrations across the world.
Tibetan Youth Congress (TYC), one of the many Tibetan international non-governmental organisation that advocates for the independence of Tibet from China, has been organising “picketing, fasting, lobbying, doing peaceful demonstrations, etc, in the last 60 years to raise the voice of the voiceless Tibetans buried behind the severe censorship imposed by the CCP”, said Dhondup.
Ngawang Tharpa, a close relative of Norbu and a member of the 16th Tibetan Parliament in exile, remembers watching the news on Voice Of America(VOA). “I couldn’t believe it,” he said.
Tharpa called his relatives in Tibet to see if they could confirm what he was hearing in exile, but they told him “it was difficult to get clear information”. However, he was later able to find another source to confirm that the self-immolator was Tsewang Norbu and that he died due to his injuries. Tharpa used to be a Tibetan journalist for the Tibetan news outlet Bhodkyi Bangchen and shared the news with his former Tibetan journalist colleagues.
According to Tharpa, Tsewang Norbu grew up listening to the chords of his father’s music who was also a musician and his mother, one of the first gold medallist singers in the Nagchu district of the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Competing on China’s national music platforms and singing the lyrics of peace in Tibet, he became a symbol of hope for millions of Tibetans.
In a 2020 music video, Returning Home, he is seen wearing his traditional Tibetan Chupa from the Kham region while singing songs about his homeland Nagchu “The grassland is vast, livestock is many, my longing for you is stronger than before. You are the realm of my dream, there is no way I will forget you.”
In another video, he’s competing in a national Chinese competition, singing his song Tsampa, a traditional Tibetan staple food, “I sing your praise, you have given me all my life, you are our life, all my aspirations and hope are bestowed on you.”
But now, all that is left of him are old videos of him smiling and greeting his fans on his Weibo account (a popular Chinese microblogging site). He had attained quite a viral popularity despite the presence of Chinese censorship on the Internet.
“Norbu has been a good kid since he was very young. He never swears and is a vegetarian! In his hometown Nakgchu district of Driru county, it is jokingly said that being a vegetarian means you are a kind person. With Tsewang Norbu, it was true,” Tharpa said.
Norbu is well-known as a good writer and composer of music. Tharpa said he is also an instrumentalist. “He was well-versed in Tibetan literature and especially known for his vocabulary and lyrics,” said Tharpa.
Like Tharpa, other Tibetan organisations have also been at work trying to gather more information about the events leading up to Norbu’s protest and thereafter.
Sonam Tobgyal is a researcher at Tibet Watch, an organisation tasked with monitoring, researching and advocating for human rights in Tibet. His organisation to date has not been able to independently verify what happened to Norbu after his protest.
“We had been attempting to verify his current situation but, we still haven’t worked out if he is alive or hospitalised, or passed away,” he said.
Most Tibetan media organisations in exile have reported Norbu’s death on 2 March at the People’s Hospital of Tibet in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.
Tharpa claims that CCP’s tactic of suppressing information to get out of Tibet has affected Tibetans in exile with incomplete news being reported in the Tibetan media and confusion among the general population. He said, “Even now there are doubts amongst a certain section of the population saying that nothing has been confirmed about his death.
Pema Gyal, a researcher at the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, attributed the lack of clear information about Norbu to the CCP’s 2017 Internet Censorship policy in Tibet.
He said, “CCP has been conducting Orwellian surveillance by infringing upon the fundamental human rights of the Tibetans.” Gyal said that they claim it is to “protect state secrets and to avoid so-called separatism amongst the different ethnicities in the country, including Tibetans”.
On 6 November 2017, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress promulgated a cybersecurity law to prevent the people from “overturning the socialist system, incite separatism” or “breaking national unity”. But policy experts have been warning that it is yet another attempt at censoring people’s voices inside Tibet.
For decades, China has labelled H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, as well as Tibetans in exile, as “separatists” for fleeing into exile. They say it is to ethnically divide the “Chinese motherland”.
“Tibetans in Tibet are not even permitted to obtain Kyapden and Ngoden, prayers for the ill and dead that are primarily delivered by the Dalai Lama,” Gyal stated.
Norbu’s uncle, Sungkhar Lodoe Gyamtso, is one of the longest-serving political prisoners in Tibet. According to Tharpa, Gyamsto was arrested for protesting against the CCP’s enforcement of animal skin attire in the Drirru county in 2015 after having served 21 years in prison. Tharpa said, “Last year, he was arrested yet again, for protesting against the CCP’s marginalisation of the Tibetan language.”
Norbu is said to have burnt himself alive in front of the famous Potala Palace in the country’s capital, Lhasa, beside the Drakgo Kaling stupa. No film or photographs of the event have been released despite the presence of tens of thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops stationed in the vicinity.
Tharpa said that his sources inside Tibet told him Norbu was shouting slogans as he was driving towards the Potala palace and stopped his car to get out. According to Tharpa, his sources said that Norbu then “got on the roof of the car, and raised slogans”. He continued shouting and “put kerosene on his body and protested loudly against China’s rule while letting his flesh burn in front of thousands of people taking photographs and videos of him.”
Tharpa said that there are several CCTV surveillance cameras installed throughout Lhasa. He was even told that several people on the street witnessed the protest and filmed it on their phones. However, Tharpa said, “eyewitnesses sharing these pictures threatens their lives.”
According to Gyal, every time Tibetans commit self-immolation or other peaceful demonstration of sorts, CCP tightens security across Tibet with thousands of armed PLA troops marching inside each county that “it almost becomes difficult for air to flow.”
Unlike in the past, apart from the martyr who self-immolated, the martyr’s family along with the entire neighbourhood is now subjected to Internet ban and spying. Gyal said, “The family of the self-immolator is kept under lifetime house arrest, and if the family decides to flee, CCP turns the narrative around saying that the individual self-immolated because he was mentally unstable or had family issues or other blatant lies of sorts.”
It might be even worse if the self-immolator didn’t die.
“The CCP will threaten the person into claiming that the act was for personal reasons else his family would be cleared off”, added Gyal.
While news developments in Syria, one of the world’s least free countries, takes about a day to reach the rest of the globe, Tharpa claims that circumstances in Tibet take months or years to reach the outside borders of China. It comes as no surprise that Freedom House’s 2021 study of political rights and civil liberties “Freedom of the World” rated Tibet as “Not Free”.
For instance, on 17 September 2015, at around 1 pm local time, Shurmo, a 26-year-old man, set himself on fire near a bus station in Shagchukha village in Driru county. But the news took five years to come out of Tibet’s border until 2020, that too without any clear information on the incident.
Tharpa said, “Tibet has become a closed door.”
Under such circumstances, Tibetans in Tibet are not able to contact their family members in exile.
Dolkar Tso, a student at the Dalai Lama Institute for Higher Studies, affiliated with Bangalore University, has her parents living in the Amdo region of Tibet. Though she used to talk with them regularly through WeChat, she said, “Since Norbu’s immolation, I haven’t been able to talk with them. And my uncle in India warned me not to contact my parents fearing their lives. Though the incident didn’t happen in our locality, security has been tightened across Tibet.”
Tso has been using Wechat — a Chinese app banned in India — by changing the VPN address to connect with families in Tibet since Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook are all banned in China.
She said, “Even on usual days, we can’t talk about politics, the Dalai Lama and the situations inside Tibet, and when we do so, my mother would always tell me to use code words or pet names.” She recalled the time her parents were not able to see her profile during a video call, and it kept on appearing black because she had put a picture of the Dalai Lama as her profile.
Gyal, being an investigative researcher of situations inside Tibet and having submitted his work to the international media, said, “since 2018, the CCP has blocked communication between my family and me and I have not been able to contact them. Even my friends on Weibo and Wechat have to block me. Even so, some Tibetans are imprisoned for getting in contact with me.”
Driru County in Nagchu, Norbu’s hometown that has had eight Tibetan self-immolators, is one of the most surveillanced places in the entire Tibet because of recurring mass demonstrations against the demolition of Buddhist temples, marginalisation of Tibetan language, patriarchal re-education in the monasteries and several others of sorts. Worse so in the Soktoe region, Tharpa said, “Internet has been banned since 2017 when a huge environmental demonstration took place against mining in the area.”
In the end, Norbu’s self-immolation is not an isolated incident. It is a part of a larger ongoing battle against Chinese oppression and attempts to expose censorship in Tibet. China must stop oppressing freedom of speech in Tibet to put an end to the long voyage of Tibetans setting themselves ablaze for freedom inside Tibet.
The author is a student from the Asian College of Journalism in Chennai. Views expressed are personal.