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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.


Tibet is burning

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

of China.

The Dalai Lama has been said to have "the face of a man and the heart of a beast" and is "a wolf in monk's robes." These are the words of a government spokesperson in Beijing and the most senior official of the Tibet Autonomous Region, respectively.

China's Foreign Ministry has recently condemned the self-immolations and accused the Dalai Lama and Tibet support groups of encouraging them. Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu has called such alleged support "violence and terrorism in disguise." 

Displaying the Dalai Lama's photograph, praying for his long life, wearing an amulet with his image or having his voice chanting mantras on a mobile ringtone are all considered criminal acts in China.

“The Dalai Lama is the heart of our nation,” a Tibetan nun in Kandze once told me, quietly revealing a photograph of him she had kept hidden.

One nun said she had spent years in prison for demonstrating in Lhasa. For refusing to denounce the Dalai Lama, she said, she and her fellow nuns had electrical wires attached to their tongues and were shocked repeatedly. Then, they were hung from the ceiling upside down, their hands and feet bound together behind their backs, and beaten.

A farmer who had just been released from prison told me how he spent five years incarcerated for yelling in a public square for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet. Within minutes, plain-clothed policemen tackled him and threw him into a van. He was convicted of sedition.

He was released on “medical parole” after his body could no longer endure the torture he had received as police tried to extract a confession from him. Shocks from electrical batons and beatings with heavy, sand-filled rubber tubing do not leave external scars, but they destroy prisoners’ internal organs.

“The [electrical] shocks felt like a fire in my chest. They told me to admit the Dalai had ordered me to demonstrate in the streets — and then shocked me, over and over,” the farmer said. "I was told to admit my crimes of trying to split Tibet from China, and that I was supported by the Dalai Lama."

"I am a simple person," he said. "I have only ever seen photographs of the Dalai Lama. I want to see the Dalai Lama in my country, Tibet — that was all I was yelling for that day in the streets.”

The farmer and the nun were as determined as any two people I have ever met. This is what the Chinese government fears — the power that comes from this resolve for freedom. And, it is this fear that causes the Chinese state to shove electrical cattle prods into the mouths of those who call for the Dalai Lama’s return.

The Dalai Lama said recently while traveling in Japan that the incidents of self-immolation are "a sign of deep desperation; Chinese leaders need to look into these incidents more seriously. Ruthlessness only will not be good for all."

China must realize that it will be unable to change Tibetans’ hearts and minds, that its response to dissent has created more dissent, as well as what they fear most: instability.

Tibetans continue to post pamphlets around Kirti monastery and in the main market of Ngaba stating that if the government crackdown continues “many more people were prepared to give up their lives.”

They are no longer waiting for Tibetan leaders in exile to negotiate with the Chinese Communist cadre. They have seen that decade-long finger pointing hasn’t changed anything on the ground.

Knowing that such torture is in store for them in Chinese prisons, and that they cannot depend upon any judicial process, some Tibetans are now choosing to burn themselves alive.

Matteo Pistono is the author of "In the Shadow of the Buddha: Secret Journeys, Sacred Histories, and Spiritual Discovery in Tibet" and founder of Nekorpa, an organization that works to preserve the pilgrimage experience. Pistono’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, BBC's In-Pictures, Men's Journal, Kyoto Journal and HIMAL South Asia.