At noon on Tuesday, Tibetan monk Lobsang Lozin stood in front of the Gyalrong Tsodun Kirti monastery, an important centre of learning in China’s south-western Sichuan province.
Mr. Lozin (18), according to witnesses, drenched himself in kerosene and set himself on fire, chanting slogans as he tried to make his way down the road towards the town office of Bharkham — the administrative centre of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture where most of Sichuan’s Tibetans live.
Mr. Lozin only managed to walk a few feet before the flames engulfed his body. A photograph showed him lying on the road, every inch of his frame covered in flames. Mr. Lozin, who would lose his life hours later, became the 26th Tibetan to set himself on fire in Aba — a remote mountainous prefecture home to several important monasteries.
The string of self-immolations of the past year, which has seen 44 Tibetans set themselves on fire with at least 33 losing their lives, began in Aba. In recent months, Aba has emerged as the forefront of the protests, prompting an unprecedented security clampdown by the government that has seen the prefecture cut-off from the outside world. In interviews with The Hindu, residents of Aba and monks in India — formerly at the influential Kirti monastery, where at least seven Tibetans set themselves on fire — painted picture of a carefully controlled monastery town.
Military check-points on the mountain roads leading to Aba turn away non-resident Tibetans and foreign journalists, while telephone and Internet access have been restricted intermittently. A blanket of security, said the monks and residents, has made the town resemble “a war zone”.
The government has also begun an effort to boost development and has unveiled welfare measures for monks, hoping to stem the spreading protests. Earlier this week — days before Lozin’s self-immolation — officials were quoted as saying by State media that they had allocated 12.4 million yuan ($2 million) to build infrastructure near Aba county’s 42 monasteries.
The first self-immolation by a Tibetan in China was reported in Aba’s Kirti monastery in February 2009 when a monk in his twenties set himself on fire. The recent string of self-immolations began last year — on the third anniversary of the March 2008 Tibetan riots which also saw protests and violence in Aba.
After Rigzin Phuntsog, a monk in his twenties, set himself on fire last March, several hundred Kirti monks were taken from the monastery for patriotic education sessions. Two monks were charged with organising the self-immolation and given jail terms — of 13 years and 10 years. A third monk was jailed for 11 years, accused of hiding Mr. Phuntsog and delaying medical treatment by the authorities, according to State media reports.
The sentencing of the monks was intended to dissuade others from carrying out similar protests. But in August, another monk set himself on fire in the neighbouring prefecture of Kardze, in Sichuan. Two other Kirti monks carried out self-immolations in September and October, while Tenzin Wangmo — a 20-year-old nun at the Mame nunnery in Aba — died after setting herself on fire in October.
Immolations subsequently spread to neighbouring Qinghai and Gansu, and last month to the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).
Kanyag Tsering — a Kirti monk who left for India in 1999 — said in an interview the highly securitised environment in Aba was a reason for the protests. He pointed out that in neighbouring Qinghai, for instance, monks were allowed to perform ceremonial last rites on the bodies of the ones who had self-immolated. In Aba, however, in several instances they were not even allowed to see the bodies.
“The security forces in Aba are more aggressive,” said Mr. Tsering, who is in contact with several people in his old monastery. “Aba is a small area and it looks like a warzone. The security forces are disrupting daily life.”
Mr. Tsering joined the famed Kirti monastery when he was nine. He spoke of a daily routine lost in study, with early morning sessions of scripture study and afternoon lectures. The oldest of four brothers, Mr. Tsering said his parents were proud of his joining the monastery. His younger brother is still at Kirti.
“Things were getting better after the late 1980s, after the regional law on autonomy was passed,” he said. “Things were worse before. The Tenth Panchen Lama [Choekyi Galtsen, 1938-89] fought a lot to make things better, but after he died conditions worsened.” Mr. Tsering left for Nepal in 1998 after, according to him, 14 monks were taken away one night, accused of separatism. More than a 100 Kirti monks have left Aba, setting up a monastery in exile in Dharamsala.
This week, the government in Aba said it would boost development, but whether the measures would ease tensions remains unclear. “The social and economic development in Aba county has been slow due to its remote location and the harsh climate,” Fan Xianliang, an official in the Aba religious bureau, was quoted as saying by the State-run Xinhua news agency. “It will be of vital importance to find a long-term mechanism to improve the imbalanced development of the county’s 42 monasteries.” Aba may also follow moves in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) to offer pensions and medical insurance to monks and nuns.
Liu Zuoming, the Communist Party secretary of the prefecture, acknowledged that “regular communication between the clergy and government is conducive to ironing out misunderstandings and broadening agreements”, Xinhua reported. “The government will manage religious affairs in accordance with laws,” he said, “and protect people’s freedom of religion.”