Tibet: The Burning Question

A still of a Tibetan protestor featured on a Students for a Free Tibet leaflet. Not shocking enough, apparently. Image via deccanchronicle.com.

Once the dust of the Twin Towers had settled over Manhattan, the photos of the missing pinned to fences had curled at the corners and the thrill of watching planes repeatedly crashing into buildings had given way to guilt, September 11th became an abstract arena for those of us not directly involved to explore the dark recesses of our minds.

What had it felt like to be in one of the buildings when a plane hit? To realise that the stairwells and elevators were out of service? To unconsciously move closer to windows as wisps of smoke drifted under doors and through ventilation shafts,  while all the time, the concrete and steel structure containing you shifts and moans from it’s fatal wounds?

How awful must it have been in there for jumping to be a better option?

Oh, that’s better. Image via esquire.com.

We were so taken with the existential intricacies of the final question in particular that TV shows were made about it. Pictures were published in magazines and newspapers and then withdrawn, but the internet is not bound by the same rules and images and video of people driven are freely available as reference material in our quest of self-discovery.

So what? The advertising and movie industries have known for years that shocking visuals prompt engagement with a subject, whether positive or negative. For a subject to appear on the cultural radar is enough. But there is another factor at play here. There must be, otherwise the deaths of nearly 30 people so far this year in Tibet, and the debate over China’s rule over  the country, would be a topic of debate on everybody’s lips, and not just those who are familiar with the intricacies of the country’s political system.

The 23rd casualty in this forgotten war was a twenty year old woman, who according to a report in the Guardian newspaper, entered a public toilet in Machu town, took off her traditional overdress, used heat resistant wire to secure blankets to her body, doused them in petrol and then set herself on fire in the marketplace. Another incident, which took place yesterday, saw a man (identified later as Jhampel Yetshi) set fire to himself prior to a protest over the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Jantar Mantar.

You don’t get much more visually arresting than this. So why do most of us remain utterly unmoved by their plight?

The only logical conclusion I can come to is that we, in our cosseted Western version of civilisation, could never conceive of feeling so strongly about our rights and freedoms that such actions would be conceivable. We’re prepared to engage with and explore questions of our own strengths and mortality when it’s handed to us on a plate, but if it requires a little projection, we’re ignore it, and in doing so, tacitly condoning the oppression that drives people to commit one of the most painful acts imaginable.

That’s more horrific than any picture I can think of.

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