The Ultimate Protest: Women Self-Immolate in Tibet
his spring marked the fifty-third anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule after Beijing took control of Lhasa in 1959 and the Dalai Lama fled to India soon after. One of the untold stories of this period is the role of Tibetan women in five decades of resistance. On March 12, 1959, thousands of Tibetan women organized a nonviolent protest in front of the Dalai Lama’s home against what the Tibetan Women’s Association describes as “the illegal and forcible occupation of their country by the People’s Republic of China.” Since then, the TWA has marked every March 12th as “Women’s Uprising Day” to remember the many who had been imprisoned, tortured, or executed after that protest, including a woman by the name of Pamo Kusang, who had been married to a low-level Tibetan official at the time of her martyrdom.
I had not heard Pamo Kusang’s name before moving to China this year. But according to the Tibet Justice Center, Kusang and others “remained defiant” while they were “brutally tortured and mercilessly interrogated” for years after the event. In 1970, during the high point of the Cultural Revolution, Pamo Kusang organized a protest from behind prison walls. A group of women marched together on prison grounds and chanted anti-Chinese slogans. Kusang was seized by guards and transferred to a notoriously violent prison. Under interrogation there, she repeatedly refused to name names, insisting that she alone was responsible for organizing every protest in which she participated. For her defiance, she was among a group of women sentenced to public execution. According to literature distributed by the Justice Center:
The crowd could hardly recognize them for they had suffered beyond imagination from many years of imprisonment. Pamo Kusang herself was crippled and had lost her hearing in one ear as well as her hair which had probably been pulled out by the roots. They were lined up in front of a pit and shot by firing squad in the back.
But the fate of Pamo Kusang did not silence Tibetan women in the decades that followed. For a time, female Tibetan protests were, by and large, peaceful events focused on bearing witness. But now, as the Tibetan resistance movement enters a new phase, that is changing.