ABA, China — The monk reached into the folds of his red robe, pulled out a small notebook, and gently slipped from its pages a tiny photograph.
The man in the creased picture was a relative. He used to be a fellow monk at the monastery perched in snow-wrapped mountains outside the town of Aba. Then a Chinese security officer killed him, the monk said.
It is a sorrow that cannot be spoken of in public. A local government "working team" visits the monastery often, looking for signs of discontent, according to monks there. Sometimes, they said, when returning to their living quarters from chanting or studying, the monks find a door busted in and possessions scattered after a search.
The monk showed the snapshot as a way of explaining why ethnic Tibetans, mostly current or former Buddhist clergy, are setting themselves on fire in Aba and surrounding regions in an unprecedented show of protest against Chinese rule. Since last March, between 20 and 24 have committed self-immolations, according to rights groups. Of those, at least 13 are said to have died.
China is not fair or peaceful, said the monk, a man in his early 40s who, like every ethnic Tibetan interviewed for this story, did so on the condition that he not be named and that certain details be withheld, for fear of getting dragged off by police.
The Chinese government and its media have confirmed some of the self-immolations and denied others. But the government also goes to extensive lengths to prevent outsiders from visiting this area. A McClatchy Newspapers reporter last week became the first from an American news organization to make it to Aba since the self-immolations began.
Beijing has long blamed unrest in ethnic Tibetan areas on conspiracies hatched by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.
But conversations with ethnic Tibetans here and elsewhere in Sichuan province, where almost all of the self-immolations have occurred, suggest that China's authoritarian policies designed to tamp down disorder are fueling the troubles.
Sections of Aba famous for its Tibetan Buddhist monasteries have come to resemble an armed camp. A few blocks from the entrance, paramilitary police stood behind riot gates with shotguns and assault rifles. Three large troop-carrier trucks sat on the side of the road, flanked by more men with guns. Up ahead, traffic wound through further riot gates and troop positions.
The security was so dense that it was impossible to speak with clergy or, indeed, anyone in Aba because of the risk of bringing danger to those interviewed. The Internet had been shut off and efforts to send text messages from Aba failed repeatedly.