Tibet Self-Immolations: Why People Set Themselves On Fire To Protest China
At left, Jamyang Palden, a Tibetan monk who died after setting himself on fire on March 14, 2012, is seen in an undated photo provided by Tibetan activists.
BEIJING "Tenzin," now in his 20s, grew up in a part of China called Rebkong. At least, that is what he calls it, as a Tibetan. The majority of China's 1.3 billion residents, the ethnic Han Chinese, call it Tongren. The county sits on the Tibetan plateau -- a vast, elevated stretch of land which links Central Asia to western China.
The picturesque landscape has been roiled by increasingly violent pro-Tibetan protests for the last few years.
"If the Chinese know I am doing this interview with you, I would never be able to come out from prison (sic), or I would be killed, or I would disappear," Tenzin tells CBS News. We are not using his real name, to protect him from government retribution.
He has not participated in the protests that have consumed his hometown, for fear of losing his job, but he says he believes in the cause. The protesters speak out against discrimination that Tenzin says he and other Tibetans face every day in China.
"The Chinese people always look at us in a strange way," says the young man. "They don't believe we are normal, or human."
Buddhist temples punctuate the long stretches of highway to Rebkong, and the barren, desolate beauty of the plateau conceals an intellectual and cultural epicenter of Tibetan culture.
"Rebkong is like the Cambridge or Boston of Tibet," Tenzin says. "Many Tibetan intellectuals, lamas, writers and monks were born in Rebkong. This is a place where many important things occurred in Tibetan history."
But intensive economic development and an influx of Han Chinese immigrants have brought sweeping changes to Tenzin's home.
"There are many skyscrapers in Rebkong now, and also you can see many Chinese." Beneath the surface, however, Tenzin says the region remains culturally distinct, likening it even to the Tibetan capital of Lhasa in importance.
In Rebkong, and across the Tibetan plateau, the number of self-immolations has increased sharply in recent months. Two Tibetan men set themselves on fire over the weekend, bringing the total number of self-immolations to more than 90, according to activists. The Free Tibet organization says 27 Tibetans self-immolated during the month of November alone.
Nuns, monks, students, herdsmen, farmers, taxi drivers and mothers have walked into the streets of Rebkong and other Tibetan communities, swallowed and poured gasoline over their clothes, and lit a match. Most have died from their injuries.
In early November, thousands of students in Rebkong demonstrated against what they claim is cultural genocide at the hands of the Chinese government.
Phone access to the region was cut shortly afterwards, and internet access remains down.
Robert Barnett heads the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University in New York. He says the protests in the Tibetan plateau have changed in recent months.