Geography wars in coverage of Tibetan self-immolations

The April 19 self-immolation of two young cousins in front of Jonang Dzamthang monastery brings the number of such acts of protest martyrdom by ethnic Tibetans to a total of 34 since a young monk at the Kirti monastery set himself on fire in March 2011 to protest against Chinese rule over his homeland—or 35 since a similar event at the Kirti monastery in February 2009 presaged the current wave. Trying to make sense of accounts of the incidents is a challenge given that two sets of geographical nomenclature are used. Both the Jonang Dzamthang and Kirti monasteries are in what the Chinese call Aba prefecture, which is known to Tibetans as Ngaba. The Jonang Dzamthang monastery is in Barma township, in what the Chinese call Rangtang county but the Tibetans name Dzamthang. Most controversially, pro-Tibetan sources (Free Tibet, Phayul) refer to Ngaba as being in "Eastern Tibet," while mainstream sources (BBC News, RTT News) refer to it as being in Sichuan province. Tibet Society, thankfully, opts for clarity by giving both the Tibetan and Chinese place names. But the politicization of geographical terms is explicit.

A map on Tibet Truth website purports to give a geographical break-down of where the self-immolations have occurred. What in Chinese official nomenclature is the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) is identified as as "U-Tsang," with one self-immolation; Qinghai province is named as "Amdo" with 29; and a large area of Sichuan as "Kham" with five. A caption warns: "Beware of mainstream sources stating these occurred in 'Sichuan Province,' 'Qinghai' or so-called 'Tibetan Autonomous Region'. As that information repeats China's propaganda claims." (Contrast official map of China.) But while insisting on rejecting Chinese nomenclature, this map commits its own glaring error: the figures for Qinghai/Amdo and Sichuan/Kham are reversed. The total of 35 presumably excludes the self-immolation by a Tibetan exile in New Delhi earlier this year.

A more detailed breakdown is provided by the Campaign for Tibet's Self-Immoaltion Fact Sheet. Five of the 35 have been women. Only 25 are confirmed to have died. The big majority—again 25—were in Ngaba. Five were in Qinghai, and one in Chamdo prefecture of the TAR (near the border with Sichuan). At least 10 were monks or nuns; the rest presumably lay followers.

An accompanying map of Tibetan self-immolations shows both China's official provincial borders and a line identified as the "Tibet Border." This border—including all of the TAR, nearly all of Qinghai, and about half of Sichuan, as well as small sections of Gansu and Yunnan—clearly refers to a "Greater Tibet" (although that phrase is not used) claimed by the Dalai Lama's exile government in Dharamsala.

U-Tsang refers to the Tibetan plateau—the ethnic heartland, where Lhasa is located. It is rendered elsewhere (e.g. the Life on the Tibetan Plateau website) as "Tsang province." Adding to the confusion, TAR is itself an anglicization of "Xizang Zizhiqu." Wikipedia informs us that Zizhiqu means "autonomous region"; Xizang is the Chinese name for Tibet, as we have noted.

March 19, 2008 BBC News account, "Tibet's unsettled borders," sheds light on the dilemma. Currently about half of all Tibetans are estimated to live outside the TAR—either in adjoining Chinese provinces or India and Nepal. "Tibet's government-in-exile, based in northern India, has a very different concept of its homeland. A term often used is Greater Tibet, which covers the TAR, the whole of Qinghai province, western parts of Sichuan, areas of Yunnan and a corner of Gansu. Unpicking the history of the area is complex because each group has its own version of history, seemingly irreconcilable with that of its rivals."

The TAR largely corresponds to the area ruled by the 13th Dalai Lama, who declared Tibet an independent republic in 1912. Beijing has designated the ethnic Tibetan areas of the adjoining provinces as "Tibetan autonomous prefectures" (actually, BBC more vaguely renders it as "autonomous areas"). These autonomous prefectures actually constitute 97% of Qinghai, which has a 25% Tibetan population. The Tibetans are mostly on Qinghai's sparsely inhabited eastern plains. Tibetan autonomous prefectures (including Ngaba/Aba) also cover about half of Sichuan, 10% of Gansu, and 10% of Yunnan. Tibetans largely view these autonomous prefectures together with the TAR as a single cultural and historical entity. Unrest in Lhasa during the late 1980s—which some say prefigured the Tiananmen Square massacre—also spread to the other regions. explains that autonomous prefectures are established for areas where the ethnicity in question "live in concentrated communities" but still constitute a minority among Han Chinese. Autonomous regions are for those areas where the ethnicity in question constitute a majority. These are four: the TAR, founded 1965; Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, founded 1955; and Guangxi Zhuang and Ningxia Hui autonomous regions, both founded 1958. In both autonomous prefectures and autonomous regions, the "national minorities" are ostensibly entitled to language and cultural rights, e.g. in education and media. Of course both the Tibetans of the TAR and the Uighurs of Xinjiang complain that Beijing is encouraging aggressive Han settlement of their regions, and that Han are favored economically and politically, "autonomy" notwithstanding.

Kham, the ethnic Tibetan area of Sichuan province (actually, divided between western Sichuan and the eastern TAR), was the heartland of the Khampa insurgency, a Tibetan armed resistance movement of the 1960s. This insurgency received some aid from the CIA, as HistoryNet and the CIA in Tibet website note with glee—the latter somewhat overstating the agency's role in the movement.

As we have observed, one reason China's rulers are so intransigent on Tibet could be the potential for an alliance between the Tibetans and Han Chinese workers and peasants against the Beijing bureaucracy. But this intransigence may backfire, as repression fuels resistance. In the April 19 self-immolations at Dzamthang, local Tibetans immediately surrounded the two burning men to prevent security forces from beating them and taking them away, sparking a brief fracas.

Up to 20 Tibetans were detained and nearly 100 injured on April 14 after the paramilitary People's Armed Police (PAP) repressed protests over local corruption by officials at Adhue village in Ngaba/Aba county and prefecture. (Tibetan Review, April 19) In early April, Chinese authorities in Rongpatsa Khadrok town, Karze/Garze prefecture, Sichuan, shut down a school set up by the local Tibetans to teach their children their own language and culture, with two teachers detained. The school had been operating since 1987. (Tibetan Review, April 20) In February, the self-immolation of an 18-year-old Tibetan nun at Mamae Nunnery in Ngaba/Aba provided the movement with an icon; the nun, Tenzin Choedon, was likely the youngest female martyr. (The Telegraph, Feb. 12) (The initial self-immolation martyr of March 2011, Rigzin Phuntsog, was 16 years old.)

Another reason for Beijing's intransigence is the Tibetan plateau's strategic position as the headwaters of southern China's three great rivers, the Yangtze, Mekong and Salween (the later two flowing into Southeast Asia). The Huang He, the great river of northern China, rises in the Bayan Har Mountains of Qinghai, which form the eastern border of the province's Tibetan areas. This range divides the Huang He and Yangtze basins. Ngaba/Aba prefecture, at the southern foot of the mountains in northern Sichuan, straddles the divide.

Water is an increasingly critical concern in China, with much of the country's north now suffering from drought for a second consecutive year. Beijing has already invested 137 billion yuan ($22 billion) in the South-North Water Diversion (SNWD) project, which is to pump water from the Yangtze hundreds of miles across China to the Huang He to serve agriculture and urban expansion in the arid north. The project is slated to begin diverting waters next year through three massive canals, the Eastern Route, Central Route and Western Route—this last one cutting through Qinghai. The project has required the relocation of at least 330,000 residents along its course. (The Economist, April 14; China Daily, April 6)

A precursor study to the SNWD envisioned a "Great Western Route" that would divert the Nujiang (Salween), Lancang (Mekong), Jinsha (Upper Yangtze), Yalong and Dadu rivers in Tibet through the Aba divide into the Huang He basin. This scheme was presumably dropped to avoid conflict with the Southeast Asian nations, but the Great Western Route continues to have its partisans among China's top military engineers—who view it as the next eventual phase of the SNWD. ("Water Security for India," Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, Sept. 2010 [PDF];, Aug. 8, 2006) The China Rivers website opposes a network of new mega-scale hydrodams planned for the Nujiang River.

See our last posts on Tibet, China and regional struggles for control of water.

Please leave a tip or answer the Exit Poll.