Burning Desire For Freedom

After 60 years of Chinese rule, some Tibetan monks have resorted to self-immolation. Where will their protests lead?

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Shiho Fukada for TIME

Young Tibetan Monks in Kardze. Throughout greater Tibet, objection to Chinese rule have become increasingly nihilistic.

There are no flowers or memorials to mark the spot where Tsewang Norbu died. 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. Every few minutes, a reddish glow--from the flashing lights of police vehicles on constant patrol--illuminates the site of martyrdom.

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. Parts of the plateau have been periodically closed to foreigners.

Instead of cowing Tibetans, the security onslaught has only caused local anger to metastasize. 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. "We cannot stand the situation anymore," says one young monk from Kardze. "There will be more violence because the Tibetans have lost all trust in the Chinese government."

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