The response so far by the Chinese Communist Party has been to knuckle down even more. Towns surrounding Aba are stacked with police. Internet access is shut off in many spots. Those suspected of sympathizing closely with activist monks are said to have disappeared.
A McClatchy reporter was detained for two hours Saturday when he was pulled over at a police checkpoint 15 miles from Hongyuan on the winding road toward Aba. He was released only after photos were deleted from his camera and he agreed not to stop again in Hongyuan on the way out, a condition emphasized by threats to his driver and the multiple vehicles that followed him.
Beyond issues particular to the Communist Party's policy in Tibetan areas, the situation also may hint at the limits of the effectiveness of Beijing's authoritarian approach toward social unrest.
Conversations at Hongyuan and outlying villages suggest that the government's tough response hasn't deterred angry Tibetans. Rather, it now threatens to alienate those who were accepting of the regime.
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One Tibetan businessman interviewed in the vicinity said that he appreciated the roads and offices the government built. The man, who gave his name as Tsering, said he understood the pragmatic reasons that his daughter received Tibetan language instruction at school only two or three times a week, while she was taught Mandarin Chinese every day.
When talking about the self-immolations, however, Tsering, 29, was adamant. "The monks are asking for justice," he said.
The first self-immolation came on March 16, when a 21-year-old monk named Phuntsog lit himself aflame, apparently to mark the third anniversary of riots that struck Tibet and neighboring territories. Tibetans claim that in one incident during the 2008 disturbances, police shot 13 people dead at a demonstration in Aba.