Eat the Buddha by Barbara Demick review – the Tibetans who set themselves on fire

An esteemed journalist gets access to Ngaba, ‘the world capital of self-immolations’, and brilliantly tells the story of Tibetan resistance to China

Ngaba, a frontier town on the eastern Tibetan plateau, has become the “undisputed world capital of self-immolations”. Every few months, a monk, a nun, a farmworker, or a high school student will walk usually to the Kirti monastery downtown, shout slogans for freedom from Chinese rule, and proceed to burn themselves alive. The suicides are startling, recalling the shocking 1963 photograph of a monk setting himself ablaze in Saigon, or years later, the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation in 2010 sparked off the Arab spring. But the deaths in Ngaba have neither toppled a regime nor triggered much international outrage. China calls the self-immolators “terrorists” and makes a point of arresting even the witnesses who try to snuff out the flames.

In Eat the Buddha, esteemed journalist Barbara Demick tries to ascertain why more than 40 people have set themselves on fire in Ngaba since 2009. She lays out the town’s history of rebellions: the local Tibetan soldiers who first resisted the communists during the Long March in 1935, the countless men and women who have died in protests and uprisings over the years. Many of today’s self-immolators are descendants of the same soldiers and dissenters. Having steeped themselves in the Dalai Lama’s message of peace, the protesters turn the violence inward.

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