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Tibet turmoil: China tightens controls as immolations rise

Like many children of Tibetan nomads, Tsering Kyi started school relatively late, at age 10, but by all accounts she made up for lost time by studying with zeal. The fire within

world Updated: Mar 24, 2012 01:43 IST

Like many children of Tibetan nomads, Tsering Kyi started school relatively late, at age 10, but by all accounts she made up for lost time by studying with zeal.

"Even when she was out at pasture with her parents' flock, there was always a book in her hand," a cousin said.

That passion for learning apparently turned to despair this month when the Maqu County Tibetan Middle School, in Gansu Province near Tibet, switched to Chinese from Tibetan as the language of instruction. The policy shift has incited protests across the high-altitude steppe that is home to five million Tibetans and a far greater number of ethnic Han Chinese.

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On March 3, a few days before the start of the spring semester, Tsering Kyi, 20, emerged from a public toilet at the town's produce market, her wispy frame bound in gasoline-soaked blankets that had been encircled with wire, relatives and local residents said.

In a flash she was a heap of flames, her fist raised defiantly, before falling to the ground, residents said. She died at the scene.

Over the past year 29 Tibetans, seven of them in the last three weeks, have chosen a similarly agonising, self-annihilating protest against Chinese policies. Of those, 22 have died.

Beijing, alarmed about the threat to stability in a region seething with discontent over religious and cultural controls, has responded with an assortment of heavy-handed measures. Officials have described the self-immolators as outcasts and terrorists, blamed the pernicious influence of Tibetan exiles and flooded the region with checkpoints and paramilitary police officers in flak jackets.

Communist Party leaders have also introduced a "monastic management" plan to more directly control religious life. As part of the plan, 21,000 party officials have been sent to Tibetan communities with the goal of "befriending" monks - and creating dossiers on each of them. Compliant clergy members are rewarded with health care benefits, pensions and television sets; the recalcitrant are sometimes expelled from their monasteries.

At some temples, monks and nuns have been forced to publicly denounce the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader whose name is often invoked by self-immolators. The freedom of movement that allowed monks to study at distant monasteries across Tibet and four adjacent provinces has been curtailed.

"They claim we are free to practice our religion but in fact they keep pulling the reins tighter and tighter so we can hardly breathe," said a 22-year-old monk from Qinghai Province, who like many Tibetans keeps banned pictures of the Dalai Lama in his room and on his cellphone.

Senior officials have trumpeted the new approach, which includes the distribution of one million national flags and portraits of Mao Zedong and other party leaders - with a requirement that they be displayed at homes and monasteries.