RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tibetan monks over the past year have protested Chinese repression by setting themselves on fire. At least 20 monks have died this way, and reportedly one more in recent days. China's security forces have now tightened their grip on the Tibetan plateau. NPR's Louisa Lim dodged the security cordon and found an atmosphere of fear and loss. She's left out some details to protect those who spoke with her.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING WITH BELLS)

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Monks swathed in crimson robes chant. The air is heavy with the smell of yak butter. In this monastery, photos of the Dalai Lama - seen by China as a splittist - are openly displayed, as if in defiance. Here the monks refused to set off fireworks at Chinese New Year, boycotting normal celebrations as a mourning gesture.

Too many of our people died this year, one told me in explanation. Police cars patrol the town's streets. And on the morning of Chinese New Year, security forces took pre-emptive action.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Paramilitary forces from elsewhere were sent here, says one monk. There were tanks, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: They closed off all the exits to our monastery and didn't let us leave, says a second monk. The paramilitary police withdrew afterwards. But monks say plainclothes police remain inside the monastery. The monks listen secretly to the Tibetan service of Voice of America every night, despite feeling almost physical pain at the bleak news. Despite a Buddhist prohibition against violence or suicide, they are of one mind on the self-immolations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: What they did was great, says one monk. Yes, yes, yes, says the second. That's why we didn't mark the New Year, because of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

SONAM WANGYAL SOPA RINPOCHE: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: This is the last message of a 42-year-old monk, Sonam Wangyal Sopa Rinpoche, who ran a home for the elderly and an orphanage. In an audio recording, he says this year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died, I am sacrificing my body to stand in solidarity with them. I pray that the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet.

On January the 8th, standing in front of a police station in Darlag in Qinghai province, he drank kerosene. Then he set himself on fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

LIM: This is a sign of Tibetan desperation and Tibetan radicalization. The anger has burst into protests, like this peaceful one in Nangchen in Qinghai. But others have ended in bloodshed. Exile groups say at least seven Tibetans have died in clashes with the security forces.

China blames what it calls the Dalai Lama clique for instigating unrest, in a move to undermine stability. The last time the plateau was in such turmoil was in 2008, when ethnic riots in Lhasa left 19 dead. Since then, Beijing has tightened its controls on the monasteries it sees as the crucible of unrest.

At Ta'ersi monastery, ticket machines beep as tourists swipe through. Also known as Kumbum, this is one of the main schools of the Dalai Lama's sect. Close to a large city, it's become a major tourist attraction, with Chinese paying almost $13 a head.

There are no pictures of the Dalai Lama here, testament to Chinese efforts to divorce Tibetan Buddhism from its spiritual leader. Our Tibetan tour guide doesn't want to talk about the reasons why.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through Translator) Lots of tourists ask me, but the monastery doesn't allow us to talk about these things. We're supposed to talk about the history and culture of the temple, the artworks, the lives of the monks, their food and customs.

LIM: Pilgrims prostrate themselves along the ground in devotion. Only a handful of monks are visible, selling tickets or sweeping floors. Officially, 600 monks live here. But that's less than half the number of monks before the unrest in 2008. Monasteries are emptying out like this across the plateau. The Dalai Lama's representative in the U.S., Lobsang Nyandak, says there are two main reasons the clergy are leaving.

LOBSANG NYANDAK: Either they have been expelled for not obeying the Chinese commands, and many voluntarily left the monastic institutions, because they cannot tolerate the repression that monks and nuns have to undergo.

LIM: In another monastery, prayer wheels creak as pilgrims spin them. Beijing's bringing these monasteries under its control, by putting government officials in place to manage them instead of monks. Here, police cars drive up and down outside. Inside, there's no security presence. All appears calm - tranquil, even. But this place has seen unrest. And panicky conversations with the monks show just how scared they are.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: We don't have the right to speak freely, one monk says. We're scared. If we talk to you, they'll arrest us.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Then another man butts in. You speaking with the monks makes them truly scared, he says. They could get shot. He makes the shape of a gun with his fingers, and puts it to his head, pulling the trigger. Then, just to make the point, he repeats the gesture.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in foreign language)

LIM: It's a sign of just how sophisticated the apparatus of control has become. Parts of the Tibetan plateau, like Aba in Sichuan, where many of the self-immolations happened, have become heavily militarized, riot police armed with spiked clubs and fire extinguishers on every street.

But here, where the monks still chant and the pilgrims still pray, the repression is invisible and internalized. And the Chinese party line is to draw up battle lines. Officials in Tibet have been ordered to get ready for war against secessionist sabotage.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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