Despite soaking his robes in petrol before setting himself alight in the Tibetan area of Boudhanath on November 10, Bhutuk escaped with relatively minor injuries before fleeing to the safety of McLeodganj, where he is now recovering.
Sitting in his simple guesthouse, the 45-year-old Buddhist monk, who – in spite of recent events – exudes an air of childlike innocence and serenity, told me he decided upon his drastic course of action after becoming deeply distressed by the oppression he witnessed in his native Tibet, and more recently in Nepal, where, since the impoverished Himalayan country’s monarchy was ousted by its current Maoist coalition government in 2008, Tibetans have suffered at the hands of authorities sympathetic to, and aided by, China’s communist government.
Speaking through an interpreter, Bhutuk, who made the perilous month-long Himalayan trek to India from Tibet in 1994 so he could practice his religion freely, said: ‘Even to practice Buddhism is extremely difficult for Tibetans inside Tibet. They can’t even have a picture of our root guru, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and in Nepal they can no longer celebrate certain festivals.
‘A protest was planned in Nepal on October 19, but the Tibetans were not given permission to hold it, so many monks, nuns and lay people held prayer vigils and hunger strikes instead. No movement of Tibetans was allowed in Nepal on that day, but vigils took place all over the country. I feel very sad when I see how Tibetans in Tibet and Nepal are being treated.’
What he saw in Nepal inspired Bhutuk to join the growing number of Tibetans 14 to date who have self-immolated. Most of these incidents took place in the Ngaba region of China’s Sichaun province, but instances have also occurred in the Tibet Autonomous Region and New Delhi.
He said: ‘I wanted to express myself and my resentment at how Tibetan people are being oppressed, so I chose to self-immolate on November 10, as it was a full moon night an auspicious day for us.
‘The day before I bought petrol and rented a room close to Boudhanath.
‘On that fateful day I woke up at about 6am and circumambulated Boudhanath Stupa three times. I prayed that I would be the last person to self-immolate, that the Tibetans would have their freedom, and for the long life of the Dalai Lama.
‘I then went back to my hotel, poured the petrol into a bucket, removed my clothes and soaked them in the petrol, before putting them back on. I took with me a Tibetan flag, and put on a hat with the Tibetan flag on it.
‘At about 7am I returned to Boudhanath and walked over to the place where butter lamps are offered. I spread my shawl around the flames of the butter lamps, then I felt that my clothes were on fire.
‘I began shouting slogans calling for Tibet’s freedom, and for the long life of the Dalai Lama.’
Asked if he had experienced any great, physical pain, Bhutuk continued: ‘I had a sense that I was on fire, but overriding that was this great feeling of accomplishment.
‘I took three strides and then I thought the flames had gone out, so I went back to the butter lamps to set myself alight again, but I didn’t realise that my back was still on fire.’
At that moment the burning monk was mobbed by a group of Tibetan people who put out the flames, begging him not to continue.
‘So many Tibetans came over and asked me not to do it, telling me I would face serious consequences if I were caught,’ he said.
‘When they refused to let me try to self-immolate again I was extremely disappointed.’
The concerned Tibetans took him to a nearby monastery where they removed and replaced his petrol-soaked robes. It did not take long for word of the incident to reach the Nepalese police who, according to Bhutuk’s friends, had swamped the area within 15 minutes of his attempted self-immolation.
He said: ‘The Tibetans decided to take me to hospital wearing layman’s clothes, but as we were about to leave I got a call from a friend asking me not to go to the hospital, as the police had started a manhunt, and were searching all Kathmandu’s hospitals.’
A Tibetan doctor was called, but Bhutuk recalled that even he was uneasy. ‘He said the police were watching him, so he provided enough medicines, balms and bandages for three days and left,’ he said.
The injured monk moved to rooms in different parts of the city each night to evade detection from the Nepalese authorities who, according to ‘reliable eyewitnesses,’ continued their full-scale search for two or three days.
Realising that he would most likely be handed over to the Chinese police in Tibet if caught, Bhutuk and his friends began planning his escape to India.
The plan was to travel by motorbike and car out of Kathmandu, through various checkpoints, and then by bus into India via Nepal’s eastern border town, Siliguri. As they approached a notoriously strict checkpoint on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Bhutuk was transferred to a car, fearing his bandaged arms would give away his identity. He said: ‘So many policemen were checking cars, and one asked who I was. I said that I had to go and help a friend whose car had broken down.
‘We were allowed through and then the Tibetan driver handed me 1,000NRs and promised to help me in any way he could in the future.’
After an extremely anxious seven-hour journey he took a bus to Siliguri, where he spent the night, before boarding another bus into India.
He smiles sweetly as he tells me his only regret is that he was unable to accomplish his mission and that if his karma allows, he would not rule out a second attempt at self-immolation.
‘I want to evoke the conscience in the minds of the Chinese and Nepalese people,’ he said.