China is boosting security in Tibetan areas after a spate of self-immolation protests just as Beijing holds a key political gathering, local residents and overseas rights groups said on Friday.
Armed police in paramilitary vehicles stepped up patrols in Tongren, in the northwestern province of Qinghai, after “thousands of protesters” gathered on the streets on Thursday, London-based Free Tibet said in a statement.
The protests came after six Tibetans set themselves on fire on Wednesday and Thursday, the rights group said.
Local residents in Tongren who were contacted said they witnessed no demonstrations but reported a stepped-up security presence.
“There are lots of police on the streets. They have increased their patrols and they stay out for 24 hours a day,” a shopowner in the town centre who refused to give her name said by phone.
Another shopowner said: “The police patrols have definitely increased... and there are very few people on the streets.”
Police in Tongren refused to comment when contacted said.
In Beijing on Thursday, China’s Communist Party opened a week-long congress that is expected to be punctuated by official calls for national unity under the party and end with the party leadership handed to Vice President Xi Jinping.
China has maintained tight security across ethnic Tibetan areas of the country since March 2008, when riots against Chinese rule erupted in the Tibet Autonomous Region’s capital Lhasa and adjacent areas.
The protests left 20 people dead, according to the government, while exiled Tibetans put the figure at 203.
Tibetan areas has simmered since then, however, and a total of 69 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in recent years, of whom 54 have died, according to the government in exile.
The exiled government has been based in India since Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama fled in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese control.
China blames the Dalai Lama – who remains a revered figure among Tibetans in Chian – for fomenting unrest in Tibet and orchestrating the self-immolations.
He denies the accusations.
An 18-year-old man burnt himself to death on Thursday outside a monastery in Huangnan prefecture in Qinghai province, where a 23-year-old woman also died after setting herself alight on Wednesday, the India-based exile government announced.
A trio of young monks also set themselves alight on Wednesday in Aba County in Sichuan province, with one dying of his injuries, while another burning was confirmed in the Tibetan Autonomous Region on the same day.
Rights groups also said a huge military buildup had been launched in Aba to prevent further protests. The claim could not be verified by AFP.