(Reuters) - The Ganden Jangchup Choeling Nunnery stands hidden from view on an isolated mountain-top in southwestern China, accessible only by a twisting, rocky road. It was here, in a mud-brick hut, that Palden Choetso lived.
The 35-year-old Tibetan Buddhist nun burned herself to death on a public street an hour’s drive away earlier this month, the latest in a string of self-immolations to protest against Chinese religious controls over Tibet.
Palden was a quiet woman who had been with the nunnery in the Ganzi prefecture in Sichuan province for more than a decade, her friends said. A bright nun who studied Tibetan Buddhism, she was well-versed in reciting spiritual texts and was an ardent follower of the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama.
No one suspected, however, that Palden would sacrifice herself, writhing in flames on a dusty road lined with shops in downtown Daofu, or Tawu in Tibetan.
“I want the Dalai Lama to return to China, I want freedom for Tibet!” she is said to have shouted as fire engulfed her body.
“She had drunk several jin of gasoline,” a senior religious figure at the nunnery told Reuters, referring to a traditional weight of measure that is about half a kilogram. “We got a call that she had set herself on fire, and a few of us went down to try to save her. But it was too late.”
In China, eleven Tibetan monks and nuns — some former clergy — have resorted to the extreme protest since March this year. At least six have been fatal.
The similarities are striking: All called for the return of the 76-year-old Dalai Lama, who fled to exile in India in 1959, and for freedom for Tibet.
China’s Foreign Ministry has branded the self-immolators “terrorists” and has said the Dalai Lama, whom it condemns as a supporter of violent separatism, should take the blame for the “immoral” burnings.
Human rights activists and Tibet experts say, however, the string of self-immolations stems from desperation at Chinese religious controls and being left with few opportunities and little protection for their culture, without the Dalai Lama to provide hope.
“In her heart, she’s always wanted the Dalai Lama to return to China,” said the senior religious figure at Palden’s nunnery, some 425 km (265 miles) from Lhasa, capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region.
The Dalai Lama, revered by Tibetans, has not condemned or condoned the burnings but said the desperate conditions Tibetans face under Beijing’s rigid controls in what amounted to “cultural genocide” have led to the spate of self-immolations.
Burning oneself in public is not a new form of protest in China. The self-immolations are perhaps an uncomfortable reminder to the Communist Party of previous public protests such as those by five people in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 2001. China said then the self-immolators belonged to Falun Gong, a banned spiritual group.
But this year’s self-immolations are notable for their frequency — and the power with which they symbolize the pent-up frustration felt by many Tibetans in China.
Just days before she burned herself, Palden told her fellow nuns that she felt “so sorry for those who self-immolated themselves,” Free Tibet, an advocacy group, told Reuters.
Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China for Human Rights Watch, said that his interviews and reports among the monastic communities suggest that tensions are worse now than in March 2008, when deadly riots against the Chinese presence spread across Tibetan regions ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
“So far, the escalation and the rise in tensions is unprecedented,” he said. “One of the main concerns of the government is they don’t exactly know how to respond to this.”
“Normally they rely on fear and intimidation,” Bequelin said. “But how do you intimidate people who are ready to set themselves on fire?”
Most of the people who Reuters spoke to in three Tibetan towns in Ganzi prefecture approved of the grisly act.
“I think they are all heroes,” said a woman shopkeeper selling Tibetan religious artwork in the heavily Tibetan town of Danba, giving the “thumbs up” as she spoke. “The central government says our policies on the Tibetans are good. But all they do is suppress the Tibetan people.”
“There will be more. This is just the beginning,” she said. “There’s no other way out.”
A monk at the Jingang Temple in Kangding town concurred: “Many Tibetans support it, and I support it too. They gave up their lives for the Tibetan race.”
In Daofu, a town of about 55,000 people and the site of a previous self-immolation by a monk from the Nyitso monastery in mid-August, Tibetan clergy appeared conflicted about the act.
“No, absolutely not,” said the senior religious figure from Palden’s nunnery, when asked whether he supported self-immolation. “I can’t support it because we’re talking about people’s lives. It’s going against the principles of Buddhism.”
The Karmapa Lama, ranked third in the hierarchy of Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama and Panchen Lama, appealed last week for Tibetans not to set themselves on fire, saying he hoped they would find more constructive ways to advance their cause.
Robbie Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York, said there has been no precedent for self-immolation as a political protest in Tibet, but added it would be “quite misleading to think that Buddhists disapprove of this”.
“They disapprove of it from the point of view of the individual, but they admire the sacrifice that the person is making for what’s seen as a greater ideal, for the greater good,” Barnett said.
The self-immolations have been concentrated in Ganzi and the neighboring Aba prefecture. Most residents are Tibetan herders and farmers, many of whom have long resented Chinese rule.
“This was not far from the areas where the first big battles began against the Chinese in the mid-1950s,” Barnett said. “These are people who are not easily pushed around, especially now when their religious institutions are being interfered with in a way that is not seen by them as justifiable.”
All the monks who were interviewed by Reuters spoke of decades of “patriotic re-education” campaigns, during which they are forced to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party and occasionally denounce the Dalai Lama.
In Daofu, where monks have been jailed for “splittist” activities, they say they live in fear of the police and are wary of arrest. All of them asked that their names not be used.
The complaints are familiar: China has ruled Tibet with an iron fist since its troops marched in 1950. Experts say, however, that Beijing has compounded the problem by intensifying its security presence in monasteries in recent years.
Monks and nuns are deeply respected figures in Tibetan society and have also often led resistance to Chinese Communist rule. Chinese security forces detained about 300 Tibetan monks from Aba’s Kirti monastery for a month in May amid a crackdown sparked by a monk’s self-immolation in March.
Although there were no police roadblocks and no sign of a heavy security presence in Ganzi on a recent weekend, six buses of troops and paramilitary forces were seen leaving Daofu. Police told Reuters journalists to “leave immediately” and tailed them out of the town for about 200 km.
China, which has poured billions into Tibet, rejects accusations that it oppresses Tibetans, saying its rule has ended serfdom and brought huge economic benefits to what was a poor, feudal society.
“Life was much harder before the Communists came,” said Zhaxi Zhongka, a villager from Jiaju village in Danba, which has benefited from tourism money. She brushed off questions about Tibetan independence and the Dalai Lama.
But many Tibetans remain resentful of Chinese rule. They have placed their hopes in the Dalai Lama, who stresses a non-violent movement for Tibetan autonomy but not outright independence.
Khedroob Thondup, the Dalai Lama’s nephew, said in a telephone interview the situation is unlikely to improve unless Chinese officials meet with his uncle. China has held on-off talks with the Dalai Lama’s envoys for several years, without any sign of progress. Talks between the two sides last occurred in February 2010.
The thorny issue of the aging Dalai Lama’s religious succession may also feed into tensions. Tibetans fear China will use the issue to split the movement, with one new Lama named by exiles and one by China after his death.
“We cannot change anything without His Holiness, the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet,” Palden was quoted as telling her friends in the nunnery, days before she burned herself.
Woeser, a Tibetan writer based in Beijing, said Tibetans in Ganzi have been sentenced to jail for merely shouting slogans. “Under these circumstances, you can only choose self-immolation to express your intentions,” she said.
Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Ken Wills and Raju Gopalakrishnan