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Tensions are high across the Tibetan plateau, an area that spans a quarter of China. At least 21 monks and nuns have set themselves on fire in protest of China's rule over the last year. GlobalPost takes you to ethnically Tibetan parts of China, where the mood may be quiet but each self-immolation reverberates.

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Kirti Monastery. July 2004. (Xuan Che/GlobalPost)

Tibet is burning

Opinion: What compels a Buddhist nun to burn herself alive?

BIHAR, India — There is only one road to Kirti monastery, and it is rough.

Snow peaks tower to the north and west of the sprawling complex in eastern Tibet. Nomads who visit the chapels to pray let their yaks graze on the grasslands rolling in every direction.

Kirti, located in the region of Ngaba, which the Chinese refer to as Aba, is a spiritual hub and a center for Buddhist scholarship. Since the 15th century, its pagoda-like temples and elaborate shrines, libraries and debate halls, paintings and sculptures of Buddhist masters, have called to monks across Tibet.

In recent months, however, Kirti has become known for something else entirely.

Since March, eight monks from Kirti have self-immolated in protest of China's grip on their homeland. Another monk and a nun from the neighboring prefecture, Kandze (Chinese: Ganzi) have also set themselves on fire. On Thursday, reports emerged of yet another nun burning herself alive in the Tawu area between Ngaba and Kandze.

More: Tibetan nun burns herself to death in Tibet

Palden Choetso (also known as Choesang), a 35-year-old Buddhist nun, is reported to have succumbed to burn injuries after calling for freedom in Tibet and setting herself on fire. She is the 11th Tibetan to have done so since March this year. Four monks and two have nuns died; the others are in police custody.

When they self-immolate, these young Tibetans — mostly between the ages of 18 and 25 — shout things like ''Freedom in Tibet,'' ''We want human rights," and ''Return of the Dalai Lama in Tibet.''

While their message is clear, pressing questions remain: What motivates a nun to soak her robes with petrol and then set herself on fire? Why would a monk drink gasoline, then walk to his village square and set himself aflame with a cigarette lighter?

Do these Tibetans believe their sacrifice will be like that of the Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi who self-immolated in December of 2010? Nobody could have predicted Bouazizi’s action would spark the Arab Spring.

Self-immolation as a tool for Tibetans’ political expression is new. Before 2009, there was no known occurrence of such type of protest inside Tibet.

To understand these acts of self-immolation, one must consider the decades of repression Tibetans have endured.

More: What does a trend of self-immolations tell us?

A few years ago, while researching a book on Tibetan Buddhism, I stayed at a truck-stop hotel near the Kirti monastery. One morning, a plain-clothes cop barged into my dank room and took me to the police station for six hours of questioning.

The police wanted to know if I had any connection to a small group of monks, who had recently staged a non-violent demonstration and distributed leaflets calling for “China Out Of Tibet.” I did not. They wanted to know if I had ties to Tibet support groups in the West. I did, but also denied.

Ultimately, I was released and rather unceremoniously put on the next bus towards Chengdu, a 12-hour journey south.

 A Tibetan nun takes a break in the sun from a three hour "Puja" or prayer meditation session at the Keydong Thuk-Che Choling Monastery in May 19, 2003 in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

I was not mistreated, only exhausted, which does not compare to the intimidation, fear and violence that Tibetans endure daily under China’s rule.

The climate near Kirti was repressive then. It's worse now.

Today, Ngaba and Kandze, which both lie in China's Sichuan province, are under full lockdown. Riot gear-clad soldiers, armored tanks and patrols with mounted weapons make their rounds throughout day and night. They carry fire extinguishers.

Watchtowers and fortified roadblocks have been installed, and the movement of all Tibetans is strictly monitored.

During dozens of trips to Tibet and China, I have spoken with scores of monks and nuns. Each spoke passionately of his or her deepest aspiration: that the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, be reunited with his brethren. Each had experienced political indoctrination or had been tortured for refusing to participate.

Chinese officials vilify the Dalai Lama. They say he wants an independent Tibet, even though since 1988, the Dalai Lama has publicly stated that he seeks genuine autonomy for Tibetans within the People's Republic