In the past week alone, six Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policies in the remote Tibetan monastery town of Rebkong in north-western Qinghai province, overseas groups said, marking an escalation in the protests which have seen at least 76 Tibetans set themselves on fire.
On Saturday, a 24-year old Tibetan, named Sangdhak Tsering, died after setting himself on fire, monks in India said on Monday. His death followed a protest by Chagmo Kyi, a mother of two, who set herself on fire outside the 14th century Rongwo monastery that sits at the centre of the town, which is called Tongren in Chinese. Hundreds of Tibetans gathered over the weekend to attend the cremation of Chagmo Kyi.
The Dolma Square, named after a golden statue of Jetsun Dolma, a Bodhisattva and female deity known for her compassion, has been a site of several protests by Rongwo monks and local Tibetans since March, when two Tibetans set themselves on fire in the town. The square sits at the entrance of the Rongwo monastery, which is a site of significance for Tibetans and particularly for the Yellow Hat sect, for whom the Dalai Lama is the most important figure.
During a visit to Rebkong in April, The Hindu found tight security outside Dolma Square, where a black SWAT van was permanently stationed. Monks at Rongwo Monastery told The Hindu in interviews that tensions had been high in the monastery after two self-immolation protests at Dolma Square in March, where a monk and a farmer, in separate incidents, set themselves on fire.
Rebkong is a quiet town, where small Tibetan shops displaying artwork and handicrafts line narrow, muddy streets that run outside the monastery's walls. Further down the road from the monastery, monks and school-students walk amidst groups of paramilitary security forces.
In recent weeks, the town has emerged at the centre of spreading self-immolation protests, with Tibetan monks in India, citing their sources in Rongwo, recording at least eight protests since November 7, the day before the Communist Party of China began its leadership congress.
That day, Tamding Tso, a 23-year-old Tibetan mother of one, set herself on fire. Then, five days later, on November 12, Nyangkar Tashi (24), set himself on fire as dozens of monks and residents gathered at a prayer meeting for Tso. Nyangchang Bum (20), the oldest of three brothers, also set himself on fire that same day when the death of Tso was being mourned, overseas groups said.
Two more self-immolation protests followed on November 15, when Tenzin Dolma, a 23-year-old woman, and a teenager named Kharbum Gyal, set themselves on fire. In interviews in April, monks at Rongwo expressed sympathy with the protesters. In a grainy video, one monk showed dozens of monks gathered near the Dolma statue after the March immolations, calling for the return of the Dalai Lama.
The immolations have, however, divided opinion. Some monks noted that they feared the protests would lead to a tighter security clampdown and prove to be counterproductive: Rongwo had seen easing of some restrictions that had been imposed following the 2008 protests across Tibetan areas.
In recent months, images of the Dalai Lama had been allowed for public display in some main halls. Some monks also expressed sadness that young Tibetans were giving up their lives by carrying out protests. Earlier this year, a group of Tibetan writers issued an appeal calling on Tibetans to cherish their lives regardless of the magnitude of oppression, and to carry on their struggle through different forms of protest.