Journalist Jeff Bartholet, Pulitzer Center Lead Workshop on Tibet at Young Friends Conference

 Students respond to the question, "Is self-immolation an effective form of protest?" Image by Mark Schulte. United States, 2013

Students respond to the question, "Is self-immolation an effective form of protest?" Image by Mark Schulte. United States, 2013

Originally published by the Pulitzer Center

On Saturday, September 28, Pulitzer Center staff, along with journalist Jeff Bartholet, held a workshop at the Baltimore Yearly Meeting Young Friends conference in Adelphi, Maryland.

Pulitzer Center education team Amanda Ottaway and Mark Schulte, and intern Rebecca Gibian, introduced themselves, each briefly explaining what led them to the Center and which issues resonate with them personally. Then Bartholet took the floor. His project, “Tibet Burning: Behind the Wave of Self-Immolations,” examines the reasoning behind the self-immolations of more than 100 Tibetans since 2011. Bartholet looks at both the human and political sides of the story, as well as who controls the narratives behind each story.

For the Young Friends Conference, Bartholet focused on two questions: Is self-immolation violent or nonviolent? And: Is self-immolation an effective form of protest?

Young Friends is made up of members from the Baltimore region ranging in age from approximately 14 to 20. Though members do not have to be Quaker to attend, Young Friends is a religious-based group focused on Quaker values and designed to meet the spiritual, psychological and intellectual development of its members. Members meet every other month at meeting houses in the region.

Members of Young Friends had varying thoughts about the first question: Is self-immolation a violent act? Some believed that self-immolation was a violent act. As one young man said, “It’s mentally violent…people [who see it] get the image in their head.”

Bartholet agreed, saying, “Self-immolation is dramatic and painful. [It is used to] shock Tibetans into knowledge of the cause, shock the international community. [They are] hoping to shock China and send a message to China that ‘we’re unhappy.’”

Bartholet also explained the idea that Buddhists may disagree with self-immolations because “you’re killing your body but you’re also killing the creatures in your body, the bugs, the bacteria.”

Another member declared that the act was violent because the person was causing harm to his or her loved ones. Other students believed self-immolation was a form of nonviolent protest because it does not directly hurt other people. There are no bombs or explosions; it only causes one death.

“I see it as a selfless act because it’s a person doing what they believe in, not putting themselves above what they believe in, for their people,” one student said.

After this discussion, the Young Friends split into groups to discuss the question: Is self-immolation an effective form of protest?

Many groups said they had varying emotions about the subject. “Our group was very mixed," one group reported back. "We looked at it from the point of view of people doing it out of love for their people rather than hatred for the Chinese.”

Finally, one student said, “It’s only effective in getting people to notice. It doesn’t help solve the problem at all.”

Schulte, the Pulitzer Center’s education director, discussed the importance of acknowledging the lens through which Americans see this issue. “Here [in America] we have control, representation in a democracy, we have the vote .… In Tibet, what’s an effective way of calling attention to that?”

While there is no correct answer to the intense discussion that Bartholet led, the Young Friends did not hesitate to dig deep. They were so intent on the conversation that the hour-long workshop quickly turned into two hours.

“Since we are having these conversations in America and you are writing these articles for The New Yorker and Foreign Policy, doesn’t that mean that the self-immolations are effective?” one student asked Bartholet after the workshop ended.

Adults who were counselors at the workshop said that the workshop created a safe space for dialogue about a topic not usually discussed by ninth through twelfth graders. And while many questions stand out, one question asked by a student resonates:

“If this is the only means of protest they have, who are we to say they shouldn’t be doing this?”

Rebecca Gibian