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China's crackdown grows as Tibetan self-immolations increase

The string of 10 recent Tibetan self-immolations – six monks, three former monks, and a nun – is unprecedented in modern Tibetan history. 

By Tom LasseterMcClatchy Newspapers / November 2, 2011

Exile Tibetans stand on the roof of a Tibetan refugee camp and hold placards written in what they said is their own blood urging G20 leaders to raise the issue of rights violation and crackdown on monasteries in Tibet, during a protest in Katmandu, Nepal, Wednesday. Exile Tibetans held a protest against China and to honor Tibetans who have immolated themselves since March in a restive Tibetan area of western China.

Niranjan Shrestha/AP

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Hongyuan, China

The young man's hands began to shake, and he tugged at his fingers to keep them still. The 20-year-old ethnic Tibetan was terrified of the police finding out that he'd spoken about the Buddhist monks who've been burning themselves alive.

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"They're doing it because they want freedom," said the man, a livestock trader who asked that his name not be used because of safety concerns.

He paused before adding, "Because we want freedom."

Since March, according to rights groups, 10 Tibetan Buddhist clergy have set themselves on fire in China's western Sichuan province. Almost all those have come in or around the town of Aba, 50 miles as the crow flies to the west of Hongyuan, amid mountain ranges at the edge of the Tibetan plateau where yaks graze and prayer flags inscribed with mantras and blessings flap in the wind.

At least five reportedly have died in the fiery exclamations of Tibetan complaint about restrictions on their culture and religion and the continued exile of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

The chain of self-immolations – comprising six monks, three former monks and a nun – is unprecedented in modern Tibetan history. The most recent occurred Oct. 25.

Tough response

The response so far by the Chinese Communist Party has been to knuckle down even more. Towns surrounding Aba are stacked with police. Internet access is shut off in many spots. Those suspected of sympathizing closely with activist monks are said to have disappeared.

A McClatchy reporter was detained for two hours Saturday when he was pulled over at a police checkpoint 15 miles from Hongyuan on the winding road toward Aba. He was released only after photos were deleted from his camera and he agreed not to stop again in Hongyuan on the way out, a condition emphasized by threats to his driver and the multiple vehicles that followed him.

Beyond issues particular to the Communist Party's policy in Tibetan areas, the situation also may hint at the limits of the effectiveness of Beijing's authoritarian approach toward social unrest.

Conversations at Hongyuan and outlying villages suggest that the government's tough response hasn't deterred angry Tibetans. Rather, it now threatens to alienate those who were accepting of the regime.

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