RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Reports are emerging of hundreds of Tibetans being detained by Chinese security forces after several Tibetan protesters set themselves on fire. The most visible and dramatic of the self-immolations was on Sunday, in the capital Lhasa. Two men were engulfed in flames just outside a Buddhist temple that is the spiritual center of Tibet, and a prime destination for pilgrims.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
There have now been a reported three dozen Tibetans who have set themselves on fire over the last year. They were protesting China's repression of Tibetan culture and religion, and calling for the return of their religious leader, the Dalai Lama.
MONTAGNE: All of this is happening as China prepares for its once-in-a-decade change in leadership. To learn more, we reached Robert Barnett, director of the modern Tibet studies program at Columbia.
ROBERT BARNETT: It's never really happened in Tibetan history before, as a form of political protest. And the first dozen or so of these cases were monks and nuns. But in the last six months, increasingly, we've seen self-immolations by laypeople.
MONTAGNE: Is it significant that two of these most recent self-immolations took place right there in the capital, in Lhasa?
BARNETT: Yes. It's one of the features, really, of Chinese politics; that symbolic achievements are hugely important. And for the Tibetans to self-immolate in front of what is their holiest temple and the oldest temple, this is a huge symbolic setback for China. This is the first protest in the capital of any significant kind, for at least four years.
MONTAGNE: And four years ago, of course, there were huge anti-government riots in Lhasa, the capital, and there's been tight police security ever since. But why, generally, has the protest taken this form?
BARNETT: Well, I think Tibetans realize that the riots that happened four years ago in which a number of people died, including Chinese civilians, was really a disaster for them; that they try not to be violent, haven't always succeeded. But here, they've found a way of protest that is effective, in the sense that it reaches the media. It certainly gets a response from the government. But it's within their Buddhist notions of not causing violence to others. So it's also something that's very hard for the Chinese police to prevent, because it happens so fast.
MONTAGNE: Looking ahead, and given that China will have a new set of leaders at the end of this year, what do you think will happen? Do you think that China will crack down harder on Tibetans?
BARNETT: We can be sure that in Lhasa, in Tibet, Tibetans will have a much harder time now. There will be a crackdown. There are already military on every street corner of the Tibetan culture of Lhasa. That's been like that for several years; that's going to increase. And Tibetans - a lot will be arrested, and so on. But I think in Beijing, so much of Chinese politics is a black box. We just don't know what's happening behind the scenes, especially at the higher levels. But a few months ago, in February, the Chinese prime minister - the premier, Wen Jiabao - said that the people who immolate in Tibet are innocent.
That means that the top leadership in China has defined the immolators as not being criminals. They're people who are regarded as - who misunderstand the situation, or something like that. So there's a little chink of light there.
They're still being accused of being manipulated by enemy forces, led by the Dalai Lama and his followers. But we can see that there is some sign of thinking, some sign of a possible opening that could be used by moderates in Beijing, if they were to get the ear of the top leadership.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
BARNETT: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: Robert Barnett is director of the modern Tibet studies program at Columbia University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.