Tibet Self-Immolations: Why People Set Themselves On Fire To Protest China
Barnett says the Tibetan protests, on the other hand, "are about ideas."
"They're about a nation or a national identity that people perceive as being under threat -- not from local officials, but from the nature of the Chinese state or the Chinese Communist Party," he explains. "That means all of the Tibetan protests are linked by a single idea, and they have the capacity to spread very fast."
Nighttime curfews have been imposed in Rebkong, and heavily armed police patrols have become commonplace.
"You realize how much courage people have to have in order to speak up nowadays," says Tenzin. "There are so many people on the streets with guns in their hands watching your every action. I don't know what they are afraid of, because we have no guns, and we are not trying to kill people."
In this increasingly tense climate, self-immolation has become one of the few ways people feel they can express their dissent.
"Rebelling against the strict government repression is like punching a concrete wall. If we talk, we go to prison," says Tenzin. "The only thing we can do is take this extreme action of self-immolation to make a change. We are taking our lives to bring happiness, awareness and dignity for other people."
The self-immolations have brought shock and confusion to Tenzin's home village.
"When I heard of a self immolation the first time, I had tears in my eyes. I had a very emotional reaction. Even I do not understand the depth to which these people value our culture. The immolations have a huge emotional impact on our communities."
Tenzin was able to visit one of the people who self-immolated this year in Qinghai, the province where Rebkong is located. It took several days for Jamyang Palden to pass away from his injuries after setting himself on fire on March 14.
"I'm sure he regretted that he was not dead. That is what I saw from his face," says Tenzin. "He was wrapped in a blanket on a bed. He couldn't move his hands, and people had to feed him. He couldn't talk, and his face was burnt, and we were only able to see his eyes. There were constant tears coming from his eyes."
Tenzin says his visit with Palden gave him "courage," and that the immolations are bringing Tibetans together to speak out for their common cause.
"The immolators are taking this extreme action to wake people up. We can see the protests people are making for freedom, and it inspires and moves us. Neighboring villages that were squabbling before are now united."
But he also says the immolations are being turned against the Tibetans as a propaganda tool by the Chinese government, and that even outside advocates of a free Tibet are abusing the protests as a "political tool."
"Many Tibetans in exile have never been to Rebkong," Tenzin says. "They don't understand what is going on with us. Every time someone self-immolates, they put them in the news, or they call them heroes and patriots, shout in the sky and make inspirational speeches in a way that encourages more people to immolate. They don't think of the family they may have left behind in Tibet and the real pain we are going through."