The flames of discontent show no sign of fading. On Feb. 8, another Tibetan monk lit himself on fire to protest Chinese rule, this time in the heavily ethnic Tibetan province of Qinghai, or the northern swathe of a region Tibetans call Kham. It was the ninth self-immolation so far in 2012 and the 21st in Tibetan regions in less than 12 months. The protestor was a monk in his mid-30s who set himself alight on a main road in Tridu county (or Chengduo in Mandarin), Yulshul prefecture (Yushu in Mandarin), according to Free Tibet, an international advocacy group that has been tracking the surge of self-burnings. While the Chinese government has acknowledged some of the self-immolations, coverage of both the incidents themselves and the desperation that drives them is scant.
Yulshul, which gives rise to the sources of the Yellow, Yangtze and Mekong rivers, was the site of a devastating earthquake in 2010 that killed around 2,700 people. It is a deeply religious area, with hundreds of Tibetan monasteries scattered on the vast high plateau. Although parts of Yulshul are a popular tourist spot for horse-racing and wildlife-spotting, the region, as well as other predominantly Tibetan counties in China’s Qinghai and Sichuan provinces, along with Tibet proper, are now essentially closed to foreign visitors. Some telecommunications links to those areas have also been severed, making it difficult to gain independent information about what is happening. In some cases, the Chinese government has blamed bad weather and roads for turning back foreigners. In other places, a more formal ban on foreign travel has been instituted, and local travel agencies say they cannot organize trips there for the time being.
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The same day that the Tridu monk struck a match to his body, hundreds of other Tridu monks, flanked by ordinary Tibetans, held a demonstration march in which they hoisted “Free Tibet” banners and called for the return of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader who holds a place in Tibetan hearts despite decades of Chinese propaganda against him. (After the People’s Liberation Army marched into Tibetan regions in 1950, the Dalai Lama stayed put for nine years before escaping to India when an uprising against Chinese rule failed.) The Tridu demonstrators also urged the release of the Panchen Lama, the second-highest cleric in the Tibetan spiritual hierarchy, who was bundled away by Chinese authorities in 1995 at the age of six after the Dalai Lama selected him. (Beijing then named another boy as Panchen Lama but many Tibetans consider him an imposter.) Another protest occurred in Nangchen (or Nangqian), also in Yulshul prefecture, on Feb. 8. Both rallies appear to have ended peacefully.
That was not the case a fortnight before when protests further south in Kham (in China’s Sichuan province) turned violent, with at least six Tibetans shot dead by Chinese forces, say exile groups. On Feb. 9, a pair of brothers who had participated in the Jan. 23 protests in Draggo county (or Luhuo), Kardze prefecture (or Ganzi) were cornered and shot by Chinese security forces after having fled into the frozen wilderness to evade arrest, according to Radio Free Asia, one of the few media organizations with contacts in what is now basically a closed region. Both brothers, one of whom was a monk, are believed to have been killed.
The question, of course, is whether these outbreaks of dissent have the potential to coalesce into a more cohesive Tibetan movement against Chinese rule. So far, the Chinese government’s reaction has been as subtle as an iron fist. A massive security force has been deployed to Tibetan regions, which stretch across Tibet proper to parts of Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu and Yunnan provinces. On Feb. 8, Chen Quanguo, the non-ethnically Tibetan leader of the Tibet Autonomous Region, told Communist Party members that all cadres should prepare for “a war against secessionist sabotage.”
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Beijing routinely blames the Dalai Lama for fomenting dissent in Tibetan regions. But, if anything, the spiritual leader’s pacifist outlook has probably quelled even more violent protest against Chinese rule. On Feb. 10, in the Global Times, a Beijing newspaper with ties to the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, a professor at the Central University of Nationalities in Beijing was quoted saying that “geographic and historical factors, [have] made Tibetan people [in Sichuan province] more aggressive.” The professor went on to opine that “less strict management in this area” has led to the self-immolations and other protests. But the fiery demonstrations have occurred precisely because Tibetans are fed up with how Beijing is presiding over their homeland. Now, more and more Chinese troops are pouring into Tibetan areas and officials are forcing Tibetan clerics en-masse to denounce their spiritual leader and attend re-education classes. The flames of protest aren’t running out of oxygen—even in the thin air of the Tibetan high plateau.