China suspects a political plot, overseas Tibetan groups see in them growing support for independence.

Jetsun Dolma, a Bodhisattva and female deity known for her compassion, is said to watch over the square that sits at the entrance of the sprawling 700-year-old Rongwo monastery in Tongren. A golden statue of Dolma stands at the square's centre, drawing the gaze of pilgrims and passers-by who mill around the edges of the plaza, which looks out over a quiet valley surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Tibetan plateau.

A small crowd of worshippers offered prayers to Dolma on a recent afternoon, prostrating themselves in front of her golden feet. Nearby, elderly pilgrims walked unsteadily towards the monastery's gates, turning prayer wheels as they chanted hymns.

At Tongren

Just weeks before, on a cold March morning, Jamyang Palden, a 38-year-old Tibetan monk, had walked out of the monastery's old wooden gates, past the pilgrims, and stood at Dolma's feet. There, witnesses said, he doused himself in kerosene and then set himself on fire. An old man who sat counting prayer beads on one of the two wooden benches that line the square's far side leapt towards the monk, hugging him in a tight embrace and trying to douse the flames that covered his body.

Jamyang was the 28th Tibetan to set himself on fire this past year. Three days later, his friend Sonam Dargye, a poor farmer employed at the monastery, followed in his footsteps to become the 29th. Their two acts shook Tongren — or Rebkong, in Tibetan — a quiet monastery town nestled among the mountain ranges of the Tibetan plateau in China's southwestern Qinghai province. The two protests have brought a tight security clampdown: today, there is a permanent police presence in front of the Rongwo monastery. Black vehicles, marked SWAT, stand parked near its gates while paramilitary policemen, guns in hand, patrol the town's crowded streets, walking among monks and pilgrims.

More than 30 self-immolation protests have taken place in the past year in monasteries and towns across the vast spread of the Tibetan plateau. The immolations show no signs of abating. On April 19, two Tibetans set themselves on fire in Aba, a prefecture in Sichuan that lies a short drive from across the provincial border and has witnessed most of the protests.

Much of the recent unrest has taken place in the regions known to Tibetans as Amdo and Kham — stretching across the provinces of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu. Around half of China's six million Tibetans live here. There have been fewer reports of protests in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), whose monasteries have been under tighter control following riots in 2008.

The string of self-immolations has worried Chinese authorities. Officials have hit out at the monks and nuns as “criminals” and “bad elements,” blaming a “political plot” orchestrated by the exiled Dalai Lama. Overseas groups, on the other hand, have seen the incidents as reflecting resentment against the Chinese government and as calls for independence which they say have widespread support. In interviews with monks, local residents and the acquaintances and relatives of three Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in Qinghai and nearby Gansu — a monk, a farmer and a 20-year-old student — a more complicated picture of the immolation protests emerged, one that defied easy description. The three stories, however, had one common thread: they were stories of ordinary people being driven to an extraordinary act by different despairs.

Ground zero at Rongwo

Rongwo is a 14th century monastery that is among the most influential for the Gelugpa or Yellow Hat sect, for whom the most important figure is the Dalai Lama. Tibetans, old and young, prayer-beads in hand and prayers on their lips, travel from far and wide to come to Rongwo.

The monastery lies a few hours' drive from Qinghai's provincial capital, Xining. Police and paramilitary vehicles can be sighted regularly on the narrow mountain road that runs to the town, through deep valleys and along the upper reaches of the Yellow River. Checkpoints have been set up outside the town and the monastery, inspecting cars for Tibetan passengers and journalists.

This correspondent managed to enter Rongwo on one April afternoon. The monastery was deserted, with many of its 600 monks back at home during the Lunar New Year break. Those present were at first reluctant to talk about Jamyang Palden's protest. “We have been warned not to speak,” said one monk in his early twenties. “There is a lot of tension here,” he said, speaking in hushed tones and staring at his feet.

A video shot on a mobile phone by one monk showed dozens gathering to protest at Dolma Square a day after Jamyang's self-immolation, some calling for the return of the Dalai Lama. In another grainy video, the body of 44-year-old farmer, Sonam Dargye, is seen lying on a street outside Rongwo, covered in flames, as passersby look on in horror. Little is known about what drove Sonam to his death. Those at the monastery said he was in financial distress, and left behind four children and an ailing wife.

While there was wide sympathy for Jamyang and Sonam, their actions did not, however, appear to have the support of many monks. Several monks even expressed strong concerns as to whether the self-immolations would be counterproductive by bringing a harsh response from the government.

“After 2008 [when there were protests and riots across many Tibetan areas, including Tongren], things were improving,” said one monk, pointing to a portrait of the Dalai Lama, whose image is banned in many Tibetan monasteries, adorning a main hall of the monastery.

In Rongwo, the Dalai Lama's images are displayed prominently at the centre of every hall – a rare sight, monks said, in many monasteries in TAR. Authorities acquiesced to their demands to restore his images as part of a general easing of restrictions aimed to win the backing of monks and restore stability after the unrest in 2008.

Other measures included moves to release some detained monks and to improve facilities in Rongwo, where a new living quarters has recently been opened. But new security restrictions imposed after the self-immolations began last year in Aba, including a greater deployment of police, new management rules for monasteries and enforced “patriotic education,” have appeared to once again stoke tensions, monks said.

Rongwo's monks also appeared to be divided on the questions of whether the self-immolations were the right way to express grievances and whether they would improve the situation.

“If the situation is bad, we must do something to change it,” said one monk, who like others declined to be named. “But our teachings,” he added, “tell us to respect life. We must not give it away.”

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