National Geographic News: Man on Fire
National Geographic News (November 30, 2012)
by Jeffrey Bartholet
One man’s story of protest.
In the past two years, more than 80 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest against Chinese policies in their homeland. One of them was a 27-year-old man named Jamphel Yeshi, who set himself aflame on March 26. This is his story.
At the time he decided to set fire to himself, Jamphel Yeshi was living in the Tibetan refugee colony of Majnu ka Tilla, on the northern outskirts of Delhi. The colony was first settled in 1963, four years after the Dalai Lama escaped to India from advancing Chinese forces. The early residents built thatched huts and made a living brewing and selling chang, a traditional Tibetan barley-and-wheat alcohol. As refugees from the roof of the world, they were unaccustomed to the heat and humidity of the low-lying plain. They had no idea how long they’d be staying but imagined they’d return home soon.
Today, about 4,000 people live in the colony, which has been overtaken by the city: A busy thoroughfare runs alongside it, and Indian neighborhoods have grown up nearby. New construction in the colony is illegal, yet ragged workers continue to dig foundations, carrying rubble and dirt in handwoven baskets balanced on their heads and dumping their contents on the nearby banks of the Yamuna River. They navigate a warren of multistory buildings, a shambolic jumble of several hundred homes with colored prayer flags fluttering from the rooftops. The alleyways, many just wide enough for two pedestrians to pass, are populated by crimson-robed monks and nuns, mangy dogs and barefoot kids, activists and drifters, petty merchants, and beggars with missing or mangled limbs who offer a broad smile and warm thanks for receiving the equivalent of 20 cents. A Tibetan far from home can enjoy familiar scents and tastes here: salty butter tea, steamed dumplings, Tibetan bread and biscuits.
Jamphel Yeshi—Jashi to his friends—lived with four other Tibetan men in a one-room, windowless apartment they rented for the equivalent of $90 a month. The entrance to the room is through a tiny kitchen area, which is separated from the sleeping quarters by a threadbare curtain in a Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck motif. Jashi’s mattress still lies on the floor in a corner, below posters of the Dalai Lama and other senior lamas. His mattress and four others form a U-shape around the perimeter of the room, which is illuminated by three fluorescent tubes. A thin cabinet still holds many of Jashi’s books, including several well-thumbed collections on Buddhism, Tibetan politics, and history. During the day, the men would store their personal belongings in two tiny alcoves. Jashi’s small nylon suitcase remains where it was when he was alive, holding most of what he owned, including three ID cards, two plastic pens, two rosaries, four cotton sweaters, four pairs of pants, a vest, a scarf, a green and a red string, and a small Tibetan flag.
On the night before he set himself on fire, Jashi was in a cheerful mood. Two friends were visiting from the town of Dharamsala, home of the Dalai Lama and seat of the Tibetan government in exile, about 300 miles from Majnu ka Tilla. It was Lobsang Jinpa’s turn to cook that evening, but he had become distracted at a cybercafé. Jashi called Jinpa on his mobile phone and ribbed him: “Have you forgotten that you have to make dinner? You’ve become very popular in Dharamsala; maybe you’re too big too cook for us now!” Jinpa rushed back; by the time he arrived Jashi had already washed and cut the vegetables.
Jinpa cooked thenthuk, a traditional Tibetan dish of noodles, vegetables, and mutton. “No one said it was tasty, but everyone ate it,” recalls Jinpa, a former political prisoner who escaped Tibet in 2011. “Jashi ate very well.” The seven young men who gathered that evening talked about the upcoming visit by Chinese premier Hu Jintao and about a protest that was to take place the following day in downtown Delhi against Chinese rule. At one point, Jashi took off his shirt and flexed his muscles, showing off the dragon tattoos on his arms and joking about his physique.
As he often did, Jashi woke early the next morning, before any of his roommates. He first went to the Buddhist temple in Majnu ka Tilla to help serve tea to people attending prayers. Then he returned to the room, where he picked up a small backpack and a large Tibetan flag. He neatly folded his blanket and propped a book by the Dalai Lama and another on Tibetan history on top, so the arrangement resembled an altar. He roused his cousin, Tsering Lobgyal, to tell him he was leaving his mobile phone at home to recharge. If anyone called, Lobgyal should answer it. Then he went to board one of five buses taking protestors to the rally.
As Jashi passed again through the temple square, a friend asked why he was dressed in long sleeves and carrying a pack—it was too hot for that. Another joked about the large flag billowing off his back. “Superman!” the friend yelled as Jashi trotted past. Boarding the bus, Jashi met yet another friend and neighbor, Kelsang Dolma, who was going to the rally with her two-year-old son. Everyone had been talking about an unprecedented series of self-immolations in Tibet since March 2011 and wondering if Tibetans might set fire to themselves at the Delhi protest. Dolma patted the pack on Jashi’s back and joked, “Is this your petrol? Don’t set it on fire!”
Looking back, Jashi’s friends see signs of what was to come. In 2008, he had vowed to set himself on fire and had even purchased a bottle of fuel. His cousins and friends persuaded him to cancel his plan, insisting that he could do much more for the Tibetan cause if he continued to live.
Dolma now recalls signs from the day Jashi self-immolated. On the crowded bus, he was holding a nearly empty bottle of cola and gave it to Dolma’s son to finish off. Then Dolma tried to fling the plastic bottle out the window—common practice in India—but Jashi stopped her. She thought he was being conscientious. That’s the way he was: earnest, devoted to doing the right thing, always volunteering and counseling others on what should or shouldn’t be done. In retrospect, she wonders if he needed the bottle to fill with gasoline. Jashi also realized on the bus that he didn’t have his wallet and asked to borrow 200 rupees from Dolma, whom he affectionately called “sister.” She didn’t have change, so gave him 500 rupees, which he reluctantly accepted.
Did he use the money to buy gasoline to fill the bottle? At the time, Dolma had no suspicions: Jashi was upbeat, smiling, and playing with her young son. “At another point during the ride, I opened a bus window to get some air,” Dolma recalls. “He said, ‘Wow,’ and he smiled and opened his arms to the coolness of the air … I think now that he knew he was feeling that for the last time. But at that moment, I only thought it was a bit strange.”
The bus stopped a couple of miles from the demonstration site so the protestors could draw attention to the Tibetan cause by marching through the city. Organizers handed out bottles of water to the marchers, many of whom wore yellow pinnies and badges with a bloody hand superimposed next to the face of Hu Jintao. Jashi told Dolma he needed to buy something for a friend, and they parted company. Video taken a little later contains a brief glimpse of Jashi, alone near the back of the procession, smiling and chanting slogans.
By the time the parade reached Jantar Mantar—a street where Indian protests take place daily—as many as 3,000 Tibetans had massed together. They were led by three horsemen dressed in traditional outfits from the three regions of Tibet. Indian demonstrations were taking place to the right and left-a clamor of noise and sweat, flapping flags, and waving banners. The heat was intense, over 90ºF. Dolma and others sought bits of shade under nearby neem trees.
Jashi slipped away through a gate and down a short driveway to an old sandstone building housing the All India Freedom Fighters’ Organization and other offices. Under a sign reading “Mehta and Padamsey Surveyors Private Limited, International Loss Adjusters,” he poured the gasoline over himself. It ran down his shoulders, over his clothes, and into his shoes. Then he put a flame to it.
Jashi ran about 20 strides, stumbled and fell under a giant Banyan tree. He was still inside the gated compound and wanted to get to the crowd of protestors outside. He pulled himself up and ran again, this time for 50 to 60 strides, through the gate and into the mass of people, who made way for the human fireball. He was baring his teeth in what could have been a broad smile—or an expression of excruciating pain.
Jinpa was among the many friends who were there that day. He saw the flaming man and then recognized Jashi’s face. He yelled out his name.
Pandemonium: Wails, screams, people frantically shaking water from their plastic bottles onto the flames. An elderly policeman tried to beat out the fire with his hat. A friend of Jashi’s, Sonam Tseten, began whipping at the fire with his backpack. But then Tseten realized that his mobile phone was in the pack and that the weight of it might be hurting his friend. So he tossed the pack aside and pulled off his shirt. “When I hit the upper side of his body with my shirt, the lower side burned more,” Tseten recalls. “When I hit the lower side, the upper side burned more.”
Above all of the cries and shouts, several witnesses later recalled most distinctly the roar of the fire: foh-foh-foh.
The first Tibetan to self-immolate in the modern era did so in the same location during a 1998 hunger strike. Just as Jashi would, Thupten Ngodup initially survived the inferno. The Dalai Lama paid him a visit at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital a day later. Ngodup tried to sit up to receive His Holiness but was gently encouraged not to. The Dalai Lama whispered through the gauze wrapped around Ngodup’s head. According to an account the former gave to Columbia University scholar Robert Thurman, he said, “Do not pass over with hatred for the Chinese in your heart. You are brave and you made your statement, but let not your motive be hatred.” The patient indicated that he understood.
“This is violence, even if it is self-inflicted,” the Dalai Lama told Thurman. “The same energy that can cause someone to do this to himself is very close to the energy that enables someone to kill others in fury and outrage.”
Ngodup’s fiery protest was an isolated incident. More than a decade later, in February 2009, another Tibetan self-immolated, then another followed two years later in March 2011. Since then, the numbers have soared: More than 80 Tibetans have torched themselves, one of the biggest waves of self-immolation in modern history. The overwhelming majority of self-immolations, carried out by monks, nuns, and increasingly by lay people, have occurred inside Tibet.
During this wave of immolations, the Dalai Lama has remained mostly silent, except to say that he must remain “neutral” on the protests. “If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad,” he told a reporter for The Hindu newspaper in July. “They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong.”
The Dalai Lama is widely revered by Tibetans, who regard him as the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. But his “middle-way approach” to China—calling for autonomy for Tibet, not independence, and often opposing even the most benign protest actions against Chinese rule—hasn’t produced results. China now refuses even to meet with Tibetan envoys. Two longtime Tibetan negotiators have quit in frustration, and the situation only seems to worsen. Han Chinese continue to migrate into traditional Tibetan areas, and repression of Tibetan religious institutions deepens. Security cameras are installed in monasteries. Portraits of the Dalai Lama are gouged out. Nomads are forcibly settled, and the Tibetan language is marginalized.
“Every other leader looks after his own country properly even if it means going to war,” fumes a Tibetan scholar in Dharamsala who did not want to be quoted by name. “Here we talk about world peace, about taking care of the whole world. What about taking care of our own country? Our leaders are more concerned about how to present themselves to the rest of the world—peace-loving and kind. If you care about your own country, you have to do everything for it: kill, cheat, lie, steal.”
That is a very extreme view among Tibetans. But it gives voice to a much wider frustration. Young Tibetans, in particular, want to act. Among the majority who still cherish non-violence but lack the otherworldly patience of His Holiness, options are limited. So a nun, standing stock still on a road in Tibet last November, becomes a human torch, flames leaping from her head toward the sky. “We need freedom,” yells a passerby, recorded in an amateur video that also captures a woman gently tossing a khata—a silk white scarf, offered in blessing—toward the flames. In another herky-jerky video secreted out of Tibet, a monk named Tsewang Norbu burns in front of a shop on a busy road. Some people gather around the charred and smoking body even as frightened Chinese hurry by without stopping; bicycles and cars pass, honking to move on quickly, as if worried they might get caught up in a security scandal.
Both the nun and the monk were from Jashi’s home area, Tawu. He himself had escaped Tibet in 2006. He had taped a photo of the monk on the door of his little bookshelf. He had seen the videos. He had watched them most recently a few days before his own self-immolation. They were shown on a screen in the temple square of Majnu ka Tilla—to inspire local residents to attend the upcoming protest. Jashi’s friend Sangye Dorji, the caretaker of a small monastery that overlooks the cramped square, was with him. “I was very emotional and depressed,” Dorji recalls. “Jamphel Yashi said only that they were very patriotic people.” He also had some advice for his friend: “If any Tibetan self-immolates, we should just let him burn,” Jashi said. “That person has made a decision to die.'”
Dorji never made it to the protest, but other friends did. Each acted instinctively. Jinpa, the former political prisoner who served 26 months for filming and distributing video of anti-regime protests in China, tried to push the crowd back. Jinpa recalls that at one point, as everyone was throwing water at the burning man, Jashi yelled out “Agh!”—as if to complain about the effort to douse the flames. “Let the journalists take photos!” Jinpa shouted.
“I was not at all hoping he would be alive with the amount of fire that was engulfing him,” Jinpa told me a few months later. “The police just wanted to take the body away quickly. Two police grabbed my waist to pull me back. I resisted and pulled back toward the burning body.”
Other friends thought Jashi might survive. The smell of burning was intense—like roasted meat, one friend recalled—but Jashi’s face was still recognizable. By the time the flames were out, however, his clothes had burned away, except for the shirt collar around his neck and the elastic bands of his pants and underwear. His skin was hard and crinkly, “like touching a basketball, but very hot,” says Tseten. “There was no softness at all.” Strangely, Jashi’s dragon tattoos appeared more vibrant than ever.
Tseten and several other friends eventually lifted Jashi into the back of a white police jeep. They placed him on one bench, and four of the men sat in a row on the bench opposite, holding him in place so he wouldn’t fall off as they sped around corners with the siren blaring. One of the men had painted his face in Tibetan colors, and now sweat, tears, and splashed water that had been thrown frantically toward the flames were all causing the paint to run down his cheeks.
Jashi arrived at Ram Manohar Lohia hospital at 12:45 p.m. and was officially admitted at 1:19. As his friends delivered him through the doorway, Jashi spoke the last sentence any of them would hear from him: “Why did you bring me to the hospital?”
Speaking those few words must have taken enormous effort. Doctors would soon discover that his insides were scorched, probably because he had inhaled toxic fumes and flames. Burns covered over 98 percent of his outer body. He was given antibiotics, painkillers, and oxygen, and doctors eventually performed a tracheotomy. At one point, the sister of one of Tibet’s highest reincarnate lamas—the Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism—arrived to deliver a “precious pill,” blessed by the high lama himself, to provide spiritual comfort and even healing for a man’s soul. A monk whispered a prayer into Jashi’s ear.
Jinpa wasn’t thinking about spiritual matters. He had shed tears like everyone else, but he wasn’t particularly sentimental. He knew that his friend had set himself on fire to make a statement—to awaken the world to Tibet’s plight. He didn’t want the sacrifice to be wasted.
He was also functioning on almost no sleep. While his friend had been preparing for his final act, Jinpa—who sports a gold earring and a goatee—had been at a party until dawn. Now his mind was racing. “Who has a key to the room?” he asked Lobgyal, Jashi’s cousin. “Don’t give the key to anyone. He might have left something.” Then Jinpa’s phone rang: Indian detectives were poking around the neighborhood, a friend told him, and wanted to get into the room. Minutes later, Jinpa got a call from an officer in the criminal investigation department who wanted to know who had a key to the room. Jinpa professed ignorance and switched off his phone.
As the sun was going down, Jinpa and others made their way back to the apartment from the hospital. The detectives had left. Two men served as lookouts in the alley while Jinpa and Lobgyal rifled through Jashi’s meager belongings. Inside a red cloth sack that also held his IDs and other documents, they found a handwritten letter in Tibetan. It began with a call for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet then spoke about the need for loyalty, “the life-soul of a people,” and about freedom: “Without freedom, six million Tibetans are like a butter lamp in the wind, without direction.”
“At a time when we are making our final move toward our goal—if you have money, it is the time to spend it; if you are educated it is the time to produce results; if you have control over your life, I think the time has come to sacrifice your life.”
The letter ended with a demand for the “people of the world” to “stand up for Tibet.” Jashi had written two copies, both on lined white school paper.
When one of Jashi’s former teachers in Dharamsala first read the letter—which by then had been typed and printed for wider distribution—he was skeptical that Jashi had written it. Jashi had arrived from Tibet as a young man with little education, and his written Tibetan was mediocre. His parents were rural middle class, and Jashi himself was classified as a “farmer/nomad” in the database of the exiled Tibetan government. He had lived in eastern Tibet, in a large house in the traditional Tibetan style, with a satellite dish on the roof and prayer flags flying from the chimney. Cows, yaks, and sheep were housed on the first floor, and the family occupied the upper level. They tended apple orchards and planted potatoes, barley, wheat, and other crops.
Jashi got his education informally, studying an hour or two a day with monks in a nearby monastery. They taught him how to read religious texts but not much more. He worked for an elderly monk in the village, etching Buddhist mantras on stones to be placed on hilltops. He was a good swimmer, and in the winter, he and his friends fashioned small ice sleds out of wood boards and metal rods. They would curl the rods around the wood so they would serve as blades, and then they’d push themselves across icy ponds until their knuckles turned raw.
As he became a young adult, Jashi became politically aware. He told friends that at least once he had ridden his bicycle late at night into the town of Tawu, roughly six miles away, to post political flyers on walls in the predawn darkness. In 2003, he was caught trying to escape Tibet, and later he apparently made some connections or got some tips about how to tap into the Tibetan underground while he served several months in multiple Chinese prisons.
In 2006, Jashi escaped successfully, taking a young neighbor along with him. They made their way first to a safe house in Lhasa, then hooked up with a guide who escorted them on the start of a monthlong trek. One guide handed off to another and then to another, through winds and snow, across plains and mountains, along the skirt of Mount Everest and into Nepal. They hid by day and hiked by night, surviving on a diet of dried yak meat and tsampa, a dough of roasted barley flour mixed with water. A few in the 15-person party suffered snow blindness, others horrific headaches; sometimes they had to pause for a day to allow someone to recover. Jashi had blisters that oozed puss. But they made it to Nepal and eventually to Dharamsala, where every newcomer gets an audience with the Dalai Lama, and everyone gets free schooling. Jashi cried when the Dalai Lama blessed him, touching his head. He couldn’t get a word out.
He entered a special school in Dharamsala for Tibetan newcomers aged 18 to 34. Former teachers and staff describe him as responsible and caring—the kind of young man who stayed late in the cafeteria to help the cook clean up. He loved to read and was obsessed with Tibetan history and culture, but he was an unimaginative student. In his essays and even his diary entries, he would often echo boilerplate talking points he had read elsewhere. “I scolded him: You’re not the Dalai Lama, full of wisdom and advice,” recalls Chogo Dorjee, who taught Jashi the Tibetan language. He was also a poor speller.
That is why another teacher, who goes by the single name Dhondup, suspected that Jashi didn’t write his last letter: The spelling in the typed version was correct. Later, however, Dhondup saw the original handwritten copy. It had six spelling mistakes and a missing word in the first four sentences. “I was reassured it was Jashi who wrote it.”
Jashi also left behind—unpublicized until now—two other very short pieces of prose. One is a sentimental paean to his mother. He expresses his unwavering affection for her: “Even in my dreams, I see her often … No one can separate our love.”
The second piece is entitled, “A Boy Without Direction.”
“The moment I was born from my beloved mother’s womb, I was without basic human rights, freedom to think, and was born under foreign domination. Because of this, I had to part ways with my country and come into exile in India. The place that I live now is a small room in Delhi, where I spend my days and nights. When I get up in the morning and look towards the east, tears roll down, uncontrollable … These are not empty words like water vapor.”
Jashi died in Ram Manotar Lohia Hospital, 43 hours after he had been admitted. No one ever survives with 98 percent burns. Even his friends, who had been hopeful early on because his face was familiar, lost hope when his head swelled beyond all recognition.
In the months since his death—and a massive outpouring of support and grief at his memorial service in Dharamsala—a monk who had recently escaped from Jashi’s home area relayed information on how the death was received there. The Voice of America and Radio Free Asia had broadcasted the news of Jashi’s demise, he says, so it was known right away. That night, many neighbors paid their respects to Jashi’s family. The monks of the monastery were forbidden to do so but conducted their own private prayer service the following evening. When Chinese authorities heard about the service, they called the abbot in for questioning.
A neighbor later told the monk that he was with Jashi’s mother a few days after her son’s immolation. She was cooking on a traditional stove, stoked with firewood, and accidentally touched the hot surface, burning her finger. She sobbed and through her tears muttered, “Imagine how much pain my son felt.”
In the neighborhood of Majnu ka Tilla, there’s still hope that Jashi’s sacrifice will mean something and also dread that it won’t. A fruit seller in Tunisia self-immolated in 2010, and that one event set off a cascade of change throughout the Middle East. Nothing like that has happened in Tibet. The world hardly notices when another young man or woman goes up in flames. Some young activists are talking darkly of another possible phase, of how thin the line is between killing yourself and killing your enemies. “The older generation is 90 percent religious and 10 percent nationalistic; they want to spread happiness and make the world a better place,” says Tenzin Wangchuk, the 38-year-old president of the Delhi chapter of the Tibetan Youth Congress. “But the younger generation is not a bunch of Buddhas. We are Buddhists but not Buddhas. If you kill evil, we don’t think that’s bad. We need actions … One day, who knows? We may raise our issue by bombing ourselves, and if you are going to die, maybe it’s better to take some enemies along with you.”
That is the fear of older Tibetans who have worked for decades to find a negotiated solution. “The only reason the Tibetans are so committed to nonviolence is purely because of the influence of the Dalai Lama,” says Lodi Gyari, who served as chief negotiator with China until his resignation early this year because there was no hope for a return to talks anytime soon. “I have also told the Chinese this. It’s a very thin line. One day, somebody may say, ‘I’ve had enough, it’s meaningless for me, but I’m not going to go alone … I’m going to take a couple of Chinese guys with me.’ That can happen any day.”
Jashi’s roommates in Majnu ka Tilla live much as they did before. Two small posters of their deceased friend, “the hero Jamphel Yeshi,” are pasted to the white walls. But the adrenaline rush is over. The men try to pick up odd jobs when they can, but as Tibetan refugees they’re not eligible for salaried employment. In the midday heat, several crash on their mattresses, waiting for the sun to go down.
On one occasion when Jinpa visited from Dharamsala, in the months after Jashi’s passing, he made the same grim joke as he had in the past when his friend was still alive: “Here I am again with these guys who don’t get any girls, don’t have jobs—useless men just waiting around to die!” This time, one of his friends perked up. “Are you coming to encourage another one of us to self-immolate?” he said. “Now it’s my turn … But don’t worry, I’ll prepare everything properly before I go!” It was supposed to be funny but had a different effect. Among Tibetans, nobody really knows who might be the next to burn.