Jamyang then ran a few yards to the intersection at the center of the eastern Tibetan town of Ngaba, faced its huge main Kirti monastery and shouted slogans calling for Tibetan independence from China and for the return of the Dalai Lama, the region’s exiled religious leader.
In the tense and heavily militarized town, police first kicked him and beat him with clubs spiked with nails before dousing the flames, according to witness reports compiled by refugee groups here in the Indian hill town of Dharmsala.
Jamyang was one of more than 33 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire in a recent wave of copycat acts of resistance against Chinese rule. The self-immolations are a reaction to what many Tibetans see as a systematic attempt to destroy their culture, silence their voices and erase their identity — a Chinese crackdown that has dramatically intensified since protests swept across the region in 2008.
Before he died, Jamyang had given the friend he lunched with three messages, said a close friend. One was that Tibetans in his village should work harder to preserve their language against the onslaught of Mandarin; the second was that a couple in his village who had recently divorced should reunite.
“The third message was that Tibetans should be very strong to face China, that Tibetans should not be cowards and should not remain silent,” said the friend, who fled his homeland for Dharmsala but remains in touch with local people. Today, Dharmsala is home to thousands of Tibetans, grouped around the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 as an uprising there was ruthlessly crushed.
In the spring of 2008, as the Beijing Olympics approached, Tibet was once again engulfed in protests and riots in which hundreds were killed and thousands were arrested. The response has been brutal, human rights groups say.
A program to resettle Tibet’s nomads into apartments or cinder-block houses and fence off their vast grasslands has gathered pace, the replacement of Tibetan by Chinese as a medium of instruction in schools has been expanded, and government control over Tibet’s Buddhist monasteries, the center of religious and cultural life, has been tightened.
Yet the crackdown seems to have fueled a renewed sense of Tibetan national identity, according to refugees who have fled the region recently for Dharmsala and those like teacher Kelsang Nyima, who returned to his Tibetan village in the Chinese province of Qinghai this year to visit relatives.
“When I left Tibet in 1998, there was not that much conversation about Tibetan nationalism, although some people talked of the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” he said. “This time I can strongly feel the growing sense of nationalism among Tibetans. It is a huge change.”