When classes started in March after the winter break, Tsering Kyi was missing.

Instead of heading to school, Tsering, dressed in traditional Tibetan robes, walked down to the crowded vegetable market in Maqu, a small Tibetan settlement a few hours drive from this monastery town in western Gansu province. The 20-year-old student, witnesses said, emerged out of a public toilet in flames, succumbing to the fire in the presence of stunned vendors.

Her death not only marked the first instance of self-immolations spreading beyond the walls of Tibetan monasteries — which have seen more than 30 such incidents over the past year — but also shed light on the anxieties of a generation of young, educated Tibetans in China.

The self-immolation protests across Tibetan areas in the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu have been seen by officials as a political plot — as a trend largely restricted to “a few Tibetan monks [feeling] nostalgic about the Dalai Lama”, as the state-run Global Times put it. More than half of them took place near the Kirti monastery in the Aba prefecture of Sichuan and were blamed by officials on the influence of Kirti monks exiled in India.

But the deaths of three ordinary Tibetans — Tsering, the student; Sonam Dargye, a farmer in Qinghai; and a widowed mother of four in Aba — in the past month suggest that the protests have gained wider traction.

Maqu is a small town of a few hundred once-nomadic families like Tsering's. With short hair and deep-red cheeks, Tsering Kyi was described by her relatives as an eager student. The first in her family to go to high school and speak fluent Chinese, she took her lessons seriously, never failing to finish within the top three ranks. She was so attached to her textbooks that her relatives said she would take the family's sheep out to graze during the winter holidays with her books in hand. Her favourite subject was the Tibetan language, which she saw as a rare window to her culture.

Days before she died, Tsering told relatives she was distressed by developments in her high school. In 2009, students at the school got together to protest moves to expand the use of Chinese language in the curriculum. After a popular Tibetan teacher named Kyabchen and a writer named Do Re were expelled — with the former sent to work in a water supply authority — Tsering was disheartened, her relatives said.

When news of protests in nearby Aba filtered through to Maqu, Tsering told a relative, “We must do something too.” None of her relatives, however, expected her to do what she did. “Her parents are in grief and in shock,” a relative said in a telephone interview. “She was the family's big hope, the only one with education. They wanted her to go to college.”

Tsering's death brought an outpouring of public sympathy in Maqu and in surrounding monastery towns, where prayer meetings were held for her. After she died, her body was kept at a local police station.

Authorities were reluctant to release it, relatives said, fearing her death would trigger protests. After dozens of relatives demanded the body be returned, the police agreed on the condition that no public memorial would be held. Monks at the nearby Tsedrak monastery, where Tsering's brother is studying, were allowed to quietly perform the last rites.

In the weeks following her death, Gansu's Tibetan areas have seen a number of protests by monks. In the Bora monastery near Xiahe, at least 60 monks marched “before being persuaded by local authorities to return to their monastery”, the official Xinhua news agency reported last month.

Today, Maqu and the nearby monastery town of Xiahe, home to the famous Labrang monastery, are off limits to travellers and under heavy security.

At a checkpoint outside Xiahe, armed police stood guard on a recent April afternoon as a procession of more than 40 police and paramilitary vehicles drove into the city.

This correspondent was stopped and detained by police and escorted back to the provincial capital Lanzhou, where an official from the local foreign affairs office said all Tibetan areas in the province were now out of bounds. This marked a change from a relaxed approach seen in recent years to many Tibetan areas outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

“You cannot go further,” an official from the Public Security Bureau explained. “This is a sensitive time.”

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