Burning for change

Sometimes an image just leaves me speechless.  Here’s one like that:

Tibetan monk self-immolates

Here’s another view of the same scene:

Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan exile, set himself afire in New Delhi, India, this week to protest China's repression of Tibet

The smile on the face of the burning man continues to haunt me.  It is like the beatific smile of an angel–or of a martyr who goes happily to his death hoping to advance a worthy cause.

Jamphel, who died of his burns, is one of 30 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest China’s brutal treatment of Tibet, and to call for the return of the Dalai Lama to his homeland. Twenty of those incidents occurred in the past year, and of those 18 of the victims have died of their wounds.

As Melinda Liu reports in The Daily Beast, “Committing suicide is a last-resort measure in any society, but it’s seen as especially extreme for Tibetan Buddhists. Because their religion reveres all living beings, many Tibetans believe those who take their own lives will not be reincarnated. That’s a grim fate for religious devotees who aspire to be reborn, again and again, in more enlightened forms. “But what else can people do? We don’t have guns. We don’t want to harm other human beings. Yet we can’t stand to see our religion and culture being crushed,” lamented one Tibetan man from Lhasa, who requested anonymity because he feared China’s massive security crackdown.”

Hana Shalabi

There are other examples around the world of people taking drastic stands to protest brutality and stand up for civil liberties and human rights.  In Israel, several Palestinian prisoners who are being held without trial have begun hunger strikes, the most extreme of which has been carried out by Hana Shalabi, who just today agreed to end her 44-day hunger strike in exchange for being released to the Gaza Strip.

In the U.S., such extreme tactics are very rare, probably because we are led to believe that we have other avenues of protest open to us.

It’s true, we do have other avenues of protest open to us.  We can rally in the streets, we can sign online petitions, we can call our elected representatives, we can pressure the media into reporting on issues we deem important.

We can write blogs like this one, without fear of being summarily arrested and imprisoned for criticizing the powers that be, as happens routinely in many other countries.

But when it comes right down to it, I wonder whether all these various forms of protest really get us anywhere, or whether they are so many steam valves, designed to allow us to vent our frustrations without really rocking the boat.

What do we have to do to accomplish the big changes we want to see in the world? How far do we have to go?  To what degree to we have to put our own security and well-being on the line?

Tim DeChristopher

Tim DeChristopher, the environmentalist activist who disrupted a federal mining auction to protest the sale of public lands to corporate interests, made his point, but landed swiftly behind bars.  He emerged into the news again this week when prison authorities, for some unknown reason, transferred him from minimum security to a lockdown cell.  His friends and allies went ballistic, beseiged Congress with calls and online petitions, and got him transferred back to more comfortable quarters.

But he’s still behind bars.

And the mining companies are still out there digging up the wilderness as we speak.

Obviously his action, however noble, was not enough to truly change the rules of the game.

If we want to see deep, systemic change in the way governments and corporations do business, especially in regards to human rights and environmental justice, we may need to take a giant leap forward in our radicalism.

I am not saying we should set ourselves afire.  Heaven forbid!  But it’s going to take more than weekend protests or online petitions to drive a wedge into the status quo power structures and open up new pathways that will lead us to real transformation.

What will it take? I wish I had the answers; I don’t.  All I know is that enough of us have to get deeply dissatisfied and fed up with the way things are, and be willing to run the serious risk of undertaking revolutionary action for change.

It happened back in 1776; it happened in 1865; it happened in 1968; and it may very well happen again in this magical year of 2012, the prophesied beginning of the Age of Aquarius.

We know we are at a transition time; every indicator points to it, whether social, financial, political, scientific, astrological, astronomical…you name it.

We know where we’re coming from.  The question of the moment remains: where are we going?

Leave a comment


  1. Martin Lack

     /  March 30, 2012

    This first photo is amazing (precisely because the monk appears to be smiling). The second photo portrays the true horror of the moment… Clearly he was running and, presumably, did this without warning or supporters ready to wrap him in a blanket? That is to say, presumably, he intended that he should not be saved and should die of his wounds?… However, what exactly do such stunts achieve? The only difference between this guy and a suicide bomber is that he did not kill anybody else… Both are, nevertheless, forms of terrorism.

    Tim deChristopher is a different case altogether. He is not an eco-terrorist or even an eco-warrior but what he did was, in effect ecotage (ideologically-driven sabotage). This was not just a publicity stunt or an empty gesture, this was an effective protest which has had lasting consequences. Unfortunately for Tim, I suspect, much much worse than he could have ever imagined… Here’s what I said about Tim’s case on Climate Denial Crock of the Week recently:

    Environmental protestors in the UK are sometimes not convicted because the judge recognises their actions were driven by a conviction that not protesting was morally irresponsible. If you do such a thing in the USA you apparently run the risk of being treated like a mass murderer…

    After being arrested for protesting about mountain top removal coal mining, James Hansen lamented the irony of being accused of obstructing justice when, by failing to modify our energy policy, we are inflicting the greatest possible injustice on future generations…

    A black man may be able to become President but, surely most reasonable people would agree that both of the above suggest your concepts or crime and punishment are more than a little screwed-up?

  2. Jen,
    Jamphel’s smile was a veneer over agony. The grimace, the shouting of burning alive. No lap of glory, of victory. Bless him, he self immolated knowing that from then till his death the pain would be entire, but more, that he was even sacrificing the reincarnations he believed in and lived for, as your piece noted. I’m reminded of that Benidictine (?) monk in the movie of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose – his defiant strength when the burning at the stake began, his fuck you, I can summon Language and History and Conviction with such proud truth, but he was reduced by our corpoeal nerve endings to just Roaring out the Beast in the human.

    I hope Jamphel’s mother and sisters find too, that first smile.

    How can we stop this? Young women and men, the very best of human gentleness, resorting to immolation.

    We fail you Tibet.

  3. “We know we are at a transition time; every indicator points to it, whether social, financial, political, scientific, astrological, astronomical…you name it.
    We know where we’re coming from. The question of the moment remains: where are we going?”

    David Holmgren has researched for 30 years where we might be going. Without confounding the probabilities with (religious, philosophical, ego etc) prejudice, he wrote a synopsis in 2009:
    “Future Scenarios: How Communities Can Adapt to Peak Oil and Climate Change”.

    This is less than 120 pages. He configures likely social scenarios that may arise in the cases of slow or rapid climate disruptions crossing gradual or massive reduction in oil based energy- (my synopsis)

    I think, you Jen, will very much appreciate this. If I knew where you were I’d send it to you.
    Buy it on Amazon?

    When people like you reach your audience with comments on the merit, or otherwise, of a work such as this, at least we know that Holmgren et al are less stifled ….by the government vetted/profit-directed powers that drive curricula.

    Most importantly, in the best of the scenarios, it’ll be ok for the future maybe, afterall. Especially if your students pick up and run, exponentially across young peoples’ communication networks, with strategies for happier kinder living.

    Please read this book, Jen. It’s the best I can offer to a friend who feels.

    Cheers, from Oz. Ange.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  March 30, 2012

      OK, will look for it right away, Angie! Thanks for the tip!


     /  March 30, 2012

    Big money and Corporate America win out again. DeChristopher was making a statement. The question: Why is he even in prison? Our nation is collapsing from within as the result of politicians who are not leaders but parasites; corporations who are the modern robber barons; health insurance (HMOs) based on profit, not help or cure; banking institutions that set up people for doom and fail; voices of the masses drowned out by the power and money brokers. The super moralists worry more about what happens in a person’s bedroom than they do about the evils and sins of Congress, and the misguided decisions of the Supreme Court. Where the Constitution says there shall be no religious test for public office, now candidates parade before the cameras lauding their particular faith. The United States of America is being shredded apart, piece by piece and “we the people” have little power to change that course.

  5. Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

     /  March 30, 2012

    This is so true. Someone like Tim DeChristopher should be one of our leaders, and instead he’s a political prisoner–while the phonies and the divisive zealots have their way. It is indeed a very sad state of affairs, which we must continue to work to CHANGE!!!

  6. Martin Lack

     /  March 31, 2012

    This is horrific and, unfortunately the only difference between self-imolation and a suicide bomber is the number of people killed – both are quite clearly acts of desperation and of terrorism.

    Tim de Christopher’s calculated act of ecotage is completely different; and there is no justification for his now being treated like a mass murderer and kept in isolation and/or lock-down – To me this suggests the USA has got its definitions of crime and punishment more than a little screwed-up.

  7. Martin,
    How can anyone think that Jampel was a terrorist?
    He was a matyr.
    Wasn’t he?
    Not unlike Christian matyrs through history?
    He died for the political, historical and religious freedom of the people of his homeland, under desperate oppression.
    Bless him.

    • Martin Lack

       /  April 1, 2012

      Hi Angie, Thanks to Jennifer fishing them both out of her Spam, you have got two comments from me for the price of one… My Dad was born in China and nearly died as a consequence of Chinese oppression. I have been as close to Tibet as Everest Base Camp. I have no shortage of compassion for the cause of a free Tibet. I do not mean to diminish Jampel’s self-sacrifice – I am merely questioning its effectiveness. When I call it terrorism – I refer only to the emotions that would have been felt by those that witnessed it.

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