Self-immolation art exhibit censored after Chinese pressure

“Last Words” by Ritu Sarin, and Tenzing Sonam, before and after it was censored. Credit: Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
“Last Words” by Ritu Sarin, and Tenzing Sonam, before and after it was censored. Credit: Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization
12th February 2016

Artwork covered up but allowed to hang after complaints from China’s ambassador

An art installation in Bangladesh composed of the last words of five Tibetans who self-immolated has been censored after angry complaints from the Chinese embassy.

The artwork, entitled “Last Words”, was created by an Indian filmmaker, Ritu Sarin, and her Tibetan husband Tenzing Sonam and exhibited at the Dhaka Art Summit on 5-8 February. It consisted of framed reproductions of five messages of Tibetans before they carried out the self-immolation protests that took their lives.

On the second day of the exhibition the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh, Ma Mingqiang, visited the summit and is reported to have “exploded” upon seeing the installation, demanding that the pictures be taken down. He later sent a protest to the organisers in writing. The organisers gave the artists the choice of either having the pictures taken down or censored. The artists chose to leave the installation in its place, but with white sheets covering the messages.

Hiding Tibet from the world

The Chinese government has a long track record of putting pressure on governments to close down art exhibitions and other events related to Tibet. The results have been mixed. In 2009 police in riot gear forcibly shut down an exhibition organised by Students for a Free Tibet in Bangladesh, entitled "Into Exile: Tibet 1949 - 2009". Chinese diplomats had contacted the Bangladeshi authorities to protest about the event.

In other cases Chinese pressure has been unsuccessful, with Chinese embassies in several European countries failing last year to prevent a hot air balloon in the design of a Tibetan flag from taking part in several balloon shows, despite warning them that it could damage relations. The pressure instead resulted in the balloon ending up as front page news in the UK.

China's action in Dhaka has again been counter-productive, generating international media coverage and attracting criticism from Bangladeshis.

A dangerous kind of protest

In a letter to the Indian Express, Ritu Sarin accused the Chinese embassy of “bullying”. Sarin and Tenzing Sonam, both based in Dharamshala, have created other work on self-immolation protests by Tibetans in the past, using photos and videos to document this aspect of Tibet’s political struggle against Chinese occupation.

There have been more than 140 confirmed self-immolation protests in Tibet since March 2009, with the most recent taking place in August last year. Many of those carrying out self-immolations have shouted slogans before or during their protests, calling for the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet and for freedom and human rights. In response to the political damage caused by self-immolation protests, and their role in raising the international profile of Tibet, Beijing has carried out propaganda campaigns against protesters and punished their families and communities, as well as anyone that it accuses of enabling them.

You can see the original photographs and translations of the messages left by the Tibetans here.

Take action for Thardhod Gyaltsen

Chinese-occupied Tibet has some of the harshest restrictions on civil liberties in the world. Take action for Thardhod Gyaltsen, a monk sentenced to 18 years in jail for owning pictures and recordings of the Dalai Lama, prohibited under Chinese rule.