DHARAMSALA, India - He walked three times around the rural monastery he had attended as a small child, cycled into town, and had a simple vegetarian meal with a friend. Then 22-year-old Lobsang Jamyang excused himself to go to the bathroom.
Inside, he doused himself with gasoline. When he emerged, he was already in flames.
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 this 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 Dharamsala.
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 his friend 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 Dharamsala but remains in touch with local people. Today, Dharamsala is home to thousands of Tibetans, grouped around the Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet in 1959 as an uprising there was brutally crushed.
In spring 2008, as the Beijing Olympics approached, Tibet was once again engulfed in a series of protests and riots in which hundreds were killed and thousands 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 Dharamsala, and those, like teacher Kelsang Nyima, who returned to his Tibetan village in the Chinese province of Qinghai this year to visit relatives.
Once a week, all across this vast Himalayan plateau, Tibetans wear traditional dress, speak only in Tibetan, and avoid shops run by Han Chinese migrants, a protest known as “White Wednesday.’’
In February 2009, a young monk called Tapey from the Kirti monastery, one of the most influential monasteries east of the Tibetan region, set himself alight carrying a Tibetan flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama. He was shot dead by police.
The monastery, in the Chinese province of Sichuan, had been under growing official scrutiny since 1997, its monks subject to intense sessions of “patriotic re-education’’ and those deemed insufficiently enthusiastic thrown out of the order, said Lobsang Yeshi, a monk who has since fled to India but has remained in contact with his old friends.
The monks were divided on how to respond. The older ones, who had lived through the Cultural Revolution, when the monasteries of Tibet were largely destroyed and emptied, “who knew what the Chinese were capable of,’’ argued for cooperation, said Yeshi, while the younger ones urged resistance.
The Dalai Lama has said he does not condone the immolations, but he has largely removed himself from the debate since he retired from politics last year in favor of a democratically elected exiled administration headed by Lobsang Sangay, a former Harvard professor.