TONGREN, China — At the edge of town, three black vans marked "special police" sat at the side of the road. A couple blocks away, a column of 22 paramilitary police marched by, some holding shotguns, others with assault rifles in hand. Down a side street, a riot truck idled with driver at the ready — water cannon on top and metal plow in front.
Two ethnic Tibetan men set themselves on fire here last week in protest of Chinese government policies that locals say repress their religion, culture and language. The beefed-up security presence was part of the usual response of crackdowns and threats.
That hard-knuckled style has not halted an unprecedented chain of self-immolations. In fact, the gruesome protests are spreading.
At least 29 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past year, according to rights groups that track the events. Of those, 22 reportedly died.
What began as acts of fiery disobedience by monks in March 2011 in the town of Aba, in the southwestern province of Sichuan, has since flared to surrounding regions and provinces clustered on the Tibetan Plateau.
The most recent took place here, 180 miles from Aba as the crow flies, where a monk self-immolated on March 14 and a farmer did the same three days later. There have been five self-immolations in Qinghai province, where Tongren is located, since January.
So far, the Chinese Communist Party's customary carrot-and-stick strategy of big-money projects — billions of dollars have been spent on infrastructure in Tibetan areas — balanced by authoritarian tactics and propaganda hasn't quelled the unrest. Tibetans say it isn't likely to, without fundamental change in the government approach.
"If they gave us more freedom there probably wouldn't be more self-immolations," said a 37-year-old businessman who lives at the outskirts of Tongren.
Speaking on Tuesday, the man said that two days earlier he'd tried to drive into town only to be turned back by police. It'd been a day since the latest self-immolation and he figured the roads would be open.
"They weren't letting Tibetans in," said the man, who like everyone else interviewed asked that his name not be used, for fear of official retaliation. "The police said, 'You can't come in now, you should come back in three or four days.'"
Confronted by police from China's dominant Han ethnic group telling him he couldn't enter a majority ethnic Tibetan town, the businessman said, he had no choice other than to grit his teeth and turn around.
"It was difficult to accept," he said.
On Wednesday, no roadblocks stopped traffic in Tongren, which is known in Tibetan as Rebkong. The security there was thinner than in Aba, where police and paramilitary units man a tight phalanx of positions. Still, across Tongren there were troops in uniform and plainclothes men with crew cuts and athletic builds who seemed to watch everything that moved.
Chinese officials argue that the self-immolations are part of a conspiracy hatched by a nest of radical Buddhist monks under the sway of exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama. Interviews this week in Tongren suggest, however, that the reasons for the fiery protest are much more complex.
Both Tibetan Buddhist clergy and worshippers in the area frequently voiced anger about monks being periodically forced to undergo "patriotic education" sessions that reinforce the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Many are upset that Tibetan children often receive more school training in Mandarin Chinese than they do in their mother tongue.
They also complain that the large-scale, government-sanctioned migration of Han Chinese, the nation's majority ethnic group, to western China has displaced ethnic Tibetans and their economic interests.
Then there is the continued exile of the Dalai Lama. Several ethnic Tibetans have screeched calls for his return as they've gone up in flames.
Instead of addressing those underlying issues when faced with self-immolations or street protests, ethnic Tibetans say, the Communist Party and its government only increase levels of surveillance and harassment.
"We don't dare speak about these things because as soon as we do, the police will take us away," said a 37-year-old monk from the Rongwo monastery in Tongren.
As he spoke those words, an ethnic Tibetan woman listening to the conversation broke into tears.
The monk who set himself on fire March 14 was from Rongwo. Jamyang Palden, described as in his 30s, picked for his immolation the square just outside the monastery's walls where pilgrims spin long rows of red prayer wheels. He survived.
On March 17, a man described as a farmer in his 40s named Sonam Thargyal, reportedly a friend of Jamyang Palden, self-immolated nearby. After his death, a large group of mourners — numbering in the hundreds, if not more — carried his body in a procession-cum-protest that ended with his remains being cremated.
Although he was speaking in a teahouse with no obvious security presence, the monk on Wednesday said that he had to be careful.
"It's very difficult now for monks from Rongwo monastery to come outside," he said. "There are cameras watching where we go, and later on they will of course ask us where we went."
Asked whom he meant by "they," the monk would not answer. He said only that life at the monastery hasn't been comfortable lately.
"If we were not in pain, we would not be setting ourselves on fire," he said.
There has been trouble in Tongren before, notably during a series of 2008 riots and protests that swept across the Tibetan Plateau. But unlike Aba, Tongren is known largely as a tourist spot and a cradle of Tibetan religious art.
One ethnic Tibetan who works for the county government that oversees Tongren said he was sent to the town on March 10 to help "educate" locals during a period that marks both the 2008 tumult and a 1959 Tibetan uprising against Chinese forces. The failed effort in 1959 forced the Dalai Lama to escape into India.
"The government is providing a lot of services to the common people here," said the 48-year-old bureaucrat. "Some common people are doing these sorts of things" — self-immolations — "but if they want to oppose the government they will not win."
Asked how he as an ethnic Tibetan felt about the situation, the man crossed his arms and said, "I'm a cadre, it's not convenient for me to talk about these things."
He was standing in the courtyard of a home where he and other government employees took up residence during their monitoring of Tongren. On his way to the bathroom early on Wednesday morning, the man was in his undershirt and had a purple toothbrush clutched in his left hand. Surprised to see an American journalist who'd stepped through an open front door, he nonetheless agreed to talk as long as neither his exact job title nor his name was used.
"It's not only in Tongren, every Tibetan area now has police," he said.
Pushed again for his personal feelings, he said, "Of course the situation is sad. It's the same everywhere. But when these things occur, the government must manage the situation."
After the first 11 self-immolations stretched from March 16 to Nov. 3 in Sichuan province, others began popping up outside its borders. A former monk on Dec. 1 set himself ablaze in Tibet, which China formally administers as an autonomous region but in practice oversees as a tightly regulated territory.
In January, a senior monk engulfed himself in fire in Qinghai, which abuts Tibet and Sichuan. Last month, two more monks in Qinghai committed self-immolations.
At the beginning of this March, a 20-year-old woman doused herself with gasoline and burst into flames in Gansu province, which sits to the other side of Sichuan and Qinghai.
While the majority of the incidents — 22 of 29 — have taken place in Sichuan, people in Tongren say they wouldn't be surprised to see more here and elsewhere.
"Tibetans from Aba and Tibetans here are the same, and the reasons for the self-immolations are the same," said one ethnic Tibetan in Tongren, a 35-year-old man who's doing a project to document traditional arts in the area.
When a McClatchy reporter first met that man in October 2010, following marches by local students against increased Mandarin language classes, he was unhappy about the government's approach to Tibetan issues. On the whole, however, he came across as open and talkative.
On Tuesday, his easy smile was gone. Speaking in a van pulled over in a farm field by a river — he'd refused to meet in Tongren itself — the man tugged at his neck and constantly looked around for police.
"There is a lot of undercover security," he said, adding in a near-whisper that, "The situation has changed."
He pulled out a video camera that he had tucked away at the bottom of a purple mesh bag. Carefully opening the viewfinder, he played back through the protests in Tongren last week. He pointed at the screen several times to explain that, "someone just shouted, 'Long live the Dalai Lama.'"
Before leaving, the man said he would try to arrange a meeting with friends of the two men who'd self-immolated in Tongren. The next day, he sent a text message saying it wouldn't be possible after all: "The police might be arresting people in secret, many people are feeling a bit panicked."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2012