On Aug. 15, the 29-year-old Tibetan monk living in the remote Chinese outpost of Tawu gulped down kerosene, bathed his body in the combustible liquid and struck a match. As he burned in the center of town, Norbu shouted for freedom in Tibet and screamed his love for the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader. Two and a half months later, under the cover of night, I visit the bridge in Tawu (or Daofu in Chinese) where Norbu ended his life. The town is under virtual lockdown. New security cameras affixed to lampposts record all movements. Half a block away, a few Chinese police cradle machine guns.
Tibet is burning. Since Norbu's fiery death, eight more Tibetan clerics or former monks have set themselves on fire to protest China's repressive rule over Tibetan areas. At least six have died this year, including Norbu, a pair of teenage monks and a young nun whose charred body was seized in late October by Chinese security forces. Tibetan Buddhism is well known for the life-affirming mantras of its smiling leader, the Dalai Lama. But self-immolation is becoming a symbolic weapon of choice for young clerics still living in Tibetan regions in China.
The incendiary displays prove that a new, nihilistic desperation has descended on the Tibetan plateau. Ever since widespread protests erupted three years ago following ethnic riots, Chinese security forces have turned the Tibetan regions, which encompass Tibet proper and parts of four other Chinese provinces, into a razor-wire security zone. Thousands of Tibetans have been jailed. Clerics have been forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama. Local officials have been shepherded into propaganda classes.
Beyond self-immolation, small-scale protests-a Free Tibet pamphlet here, a slogan supporting the Dalai Lama there-keep flaring, especially in the eastern Tibetan region known as Kham. In mid-October, Chinese security forces shot two protesting Tibetans from Kham's Kardze autonomous prefecture, where Tawu is also located. On Oct. 26, a nighttime bomb exploded at a government building in eastern Tibet. Graffiti scrawled on the building demanded Tibetan independence, and flyers scattered nearby called for the Dalai Lama's return from exile in India, where he sought refuge after a failed uprising in 1959.
The Dalai Lama for years has tried to improve relations with Beijing by saying he wants only meaningful autonomy for Tibet, not independence- his compromise has been dubbed "the middle way". Even so, on Oct. 29, he held the Chinese government directly accountable for the self-immolations. "The local leader must look at what are the real causes of death," he said. "It's their own sort of wrong policy, ruthless policy, illogical policy."
This past summer, Beijing celebrated the 60th anniversary of what it calls the "peaceful liberation of Tibet." The Chinese Communist Party's version of history goes like this: Tibetan serfs struggling under the feudal yoke of Buddhist god-kings welcomed the socialist liberators, who dramatically raised the region's living standards. The truth is more complicated.
Over the past few years, a massive influx of Han, China's majority ethnic group, into Tibetan areas has further inflamed tensions. Tibetans complain that the best jobs and access to the region's plentiful natural resources go to Han migrants. Police officers tend to be Han, as are many bureaucrats. The Tibetan language is taught in some schools, but fluency in Chinese is required for government careers, and official documents are in Mandarin. "If we don't do something, our Tibetan culture will be extinguished," says a high-ranking monk at a Kardze monastery popular with Han tourists.
Monasteries I visit are staffed with plainclothes police officers, easy to distinguish with their buzz cuts and alert eyes. So many people, one feels, are either pretending not to watch anything or watching too carefully.
Across Tibetan regions, owning a picture of the man Beijing calls "a wolf in monk's clothes" invites prison time. But in Kardze, I see the Dalai Lama's visage everywhere. Each monastery I go to has his picture tucked away somewhere. Maroon-clad monks pull cell phones out of their thick robes to show me snapshots of their spiritual leader. A woman wells up with tears when I tell her I have been to Dharamshala, the Indian hill station where he lives.
I talk to a half-han, half-Tibetan government official who grew up in Tawu. He is friendly and polite-and he wants me to know the real situation in his hometown. The Tibetans, he says, are greedy. The government gives them everything from preferential loans to new infrastructure, but still they want more. The Tibetan plateau's lunar landscape is littered with clusters of houses the Chinese government built for nomads. Yet few Tibetan nomads want to live in Chinese houses. The government worker does not understand it. They are nice houses, he says, much warmer in winter than a yak-wool tent. "If we were to give the Tibetans independence," he says, "they would starve and have no clothes on their back."
The Dalai Lama and his sister, who escaped to India with him, are the ones orchestrating all the strife, he says, his voice rising in anger. "When the Dalai Lama dies," he tells me, "all of China's problems with the Tibetans will go away. Younger Tibetans are being educated in the proper way, so they won't cause much trouble."
When I visited Dharamsala recently, I met Tsewang Dhondup, a trader from Kardze who fled his homeland after the 2008 unrest. That year, riots between Tibetans and Han led to deaths on both sides. The Chinese military's reaction to further rallies by Tibetans left some 150 dead, according to exile estimates. Dhondup was shot while trying to help a monk who later died of bullet wounds. Wanted signs with Dhondup's picture were posted in his village, but friends took him by stretcher high into the mountains where he lived for 14 months on the edge of a glacier before escaping to India. His audience with the Dalai Lama, he says, was the most treasured moment of his life. But even he predicts that "once the Dalai Lama is gone, Tibet will explode."
Even now, the Tibetan monks' refusal to disavow their exiled leader has played a role in sparking this wave of conflict. Tsewang Norbu, the monk who set himself on fire in Tawu, lived in the Nyitso monastery, which was prevented from celebrating the Dalai Lama's birthday in July. For the monks' disobedience, government officials cut Nyitso's water and electricity. The siege went on for weeks before Norbu emerged from the monastery and walked down the hill to the center of town. For a few minutes, he passed out pamphlets advocating Tibetan independence and celebrating the Dalai Lama. Then out came the kerosene.