Once unheard of in Tibetan society, lighting oneself on fire has become a relatively common form of protest today. Since March 2009, there have been about 50 self-immolations in Tibet and ethnically Tibetan areas of China. Last week, Tibetan monk Lungtok, 21, and his friend Tashi, 20, from Ngaba county in Sichuan province became the latest to torch themselves in protest of China's repressive policies.
But, by most accounts, the repressive policies continue. Tibetan monks are still arrested and "re-educated." They are beaten and forced to denounce the Dalai Lama. They disappear.
Given the continuation of such brutaility, can we then say the self-immolations have failed?
Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, doesn't think so, though he admits China has intensified its crackdown as a result of the self-immolations.
Dorjee says the extreme acts of protest have rallied disparate parts of the Tibetan diaspora around what he calls the "defining nonviolent movement of our time."
Here, Dorjee — a Tibetan born and raised in exile near Dharamsala, India — explains why he sees the spate of self-immolations as a success story above all.
GP: What, if anything, has changed as a result of these acts of protest?
The Chinese government has responded to the self-immolations in the same way it always responds to perceived threats to its absolute control over Tibet – by intensifying repression and trying to stamp out resistance. But what the self-immolations have shown is that Tibetans are slowly losing fear of the regime. If you are willing to light yourself on fire, you are saying to your occupier – your tools of oppression can no longer touch me; your mechanisms of torture and abuse no longer control me. In many ways, it is the ultimate expression of resistance.