Tsering Kyi is a Tibetan journalist, writer, blogger, and a former Miss Tibet. She escaped from Tibet into exile in 1999. This piece has been translated from Tibetan by Dhondup Tashi Rekjong and Tenzin Dickyi.
The early morning call from my relatives in Tibet woke me in my Washington, DC apartment. I heard people crying, and yelling and sounds of protest in the local dialect of my hometown Amchok in eastern Tibet.
“Boys, don’t be sad, be strong, walk this way, walk forward. Om Mani Padme Hum, think of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.” Nobody was speaking to me. Just confusion on the other end of the phone. I knew something terrible had happened.
I dialed other villagers who told me, “Your brother’s lovely son has passed away.”
“Your nephew set himself on fire on Amchok street around 2 pm today.”
On January 12, my nephew Tsering Tashi became the first Tibetan self-immolator of 2013. He joined the nearly 100 Tibetans in Tibet who have self-immolated since 2009 to protest Chinese rule. Their demands are clear: freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. The tragic wave of self-immolations epitomize the Tibetan people’s suffering under Chinese rule, and their struggle for a free Tibetan homeland.
How did such an idea occur to my humble nephew? It was only a few days back when we spoke on the phone. He said to me, half joking, half serious, “I see you often on TV but your hair is pulled back so your face looks like a moon. Don’t you have any nice chupas [traditional Tibetan robes] to wear?”
I teased him back, saying he should make me new chupas in Kachigar [Chinese: Linxia]. This was my last conversation with him.
I had not seen my nephew or other family members since 1999 when I escaped the Chinese and fled over the Himalayas, arriving in India as a refugee. I later moved to America where I now work as a journalist.
My nephew Tsering Tashi was only eight years old when I left home. Because I recited the Tibetan alphabet Ka, Kha, Gha, Nga, at home, his name for me was “sister Ka-Kha.”
On the morning of the day he set himself on fire, he said to his mother, “I will wear my chupa today. Which one is better?”
“It’s quite cold, so wear the thick one,” his mother said.
Wearing his thick chupa, he asked his fellow herdsmen to look after his yak and sheep.
“I have important work in town. I’ll be right back.” In the fold of his woolen robe, the others did not see the bottle of gasoline he would pour over himself. He switched off his cell phone. And then he lit a match.
My nephew, in his thick woolen chupa, was seen in the town engulfed in flames and calling out the name of “His Holiness the Dalai Lama”. He fell to the ground at least once before getting up again and running until he saw the police and army. Somehow, he then managed to turn away, before he fell again, and died minutes later.
Tibetans threw stones to keep the police and army away from my nephew’s body for as long as they could.
My brother was called to identify the self-immolator. Hardly able to bear looking at his disfigured body, he identified his son by the shape of his face. While some Tibetans went to get a car to transport the body, others continued to keep the Chinese police at bay. Finally, they brought the body home in a procession.
The police blocked the way of monks from the local monastery who tried to come to pray over my nephew’s body. When I called home I was told many police cars were stationed on all roads leading to our village. They turned away anyone who came to offer condolences.
An old member of the family said to me, “They ordered us to have a quick funeral without monks. We have our Tibetan tradition of arranging a funeral: We inform the head monk, then the monks come to pray, and we hold the ceremony and make offerings to the monastery. But the police are coming here again and again, saying we must have the funeral right away.”
How do I live with the fact that my beloved nephew was burned into bone and ashes beyond recognition? How do I console his wife who has become a widow, and his parents whose hearts are broken? How can I console my brother, prevented by Chinese authorities from giving his son a proper funeral?
Through the immensity of his own grief, my brother tried to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I don’t think that my beloved son died without meaning or reason.”
Deep down, I too believe that the flames that rose from my nephew’s body will illuminate our struggle for freedom and bring a ray of hope to my suffering homeland.
My dear nephew – your sister Ka-Kha will keep your last words in her heart. Sleep in peace. My dear nephew, now forever separated from me, I don’t know whether this is real or an illusion. I have kept you in my heart for more than 13 years. I will remember your eyes and voice as you called for your sister at home, and I will imagine, my beloved nephew, that you go on living.