DHARAMSALA, India (Reuters) - Teenage Tibetan monk Lobsang Rabten fled over the Himalayas to India after a childhood friend set himself ablaze in March to protest against China's campaign of forced "re-education" at their monastery.
By the time the seventeen-year-old reached the safety of India's Tibetan exile capital of Dharamsala in October, almost a dozen young monks and nuns had followed his friend Phuntsog's example. At least six have died.
"There are so many ways to protest, but Phuntsog's self-immolation was a completely different strategy," Rabten said, speaking at a refugee reception center outside Dharamsala where he had arrived days earlier.
"It really demonstrates his dedication and sincerity toward freedom."
The wave of self-burning reveals desperation among Tibet's youth after 60 years under Beijing's thumb. But it is also a moral and policy dilemma for Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and a new generation of exiled politicians.
The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 with hundreds of followers and they set up base in Dharamsala, a town in the Himalayan foothills about 400 km (250 miles) north of New Delhi.
The deaths raise theological questions about non-violence and highlight a long-standing schism between the elderly Dalai Lama's softly, softly approach to China and activists who want to fight for independence.
"It's almost regular now, I get these kind of updates, this morning I was woken around 7 am by a phone call saying someone, a monk, self-immolated himself," said Lobsang Sangay, the Tibetan government-in-exile's prime minister.
A Tibetan in Nepal had set fire to himself that day.
Indian born, Harvard educated Sangay is in a tough position -- under pressure from his generation of exiles who see no progress from the Dalai Lama's measured approach to China, but also shouldering a huge responsibility not to inflame tensions in Tibet and risk the lives of his compatriots.
"We do not encourage any protests inside Tibet, because we know the consequences," he said, but added it was his duty to give voice to men and women who chose such drastic steps.
In a sign of increased activism, his government has promoted events in solidarity with a quiet protest movement in Tibet called "White Wednesday."
Unlike the immolation in Tunisia that sparked the Arab spring revolutions, in Tibet no large-scale uprising has followed. Instead, since 2008, each Wednesday, a day considered auspicious for the Dalai Lama, an unknown number of Tibetans shun Chinese businesses, attend monasteries, wear traditional dress and speak in their own language.
Many of the self-immolators, including Phuntsog, were linked to Kirti, a large monastery in western Sichuan that has emerged as a center of defiance to China's controls.
The internet, digital photography and mobile phones have helped the monks get news and videos of the protests to a sister monastery in Dharamsala, sometimes within hours of an immolation.
Rabten was in the county town of Apa the day his friend doused his dark red robes in gasoline and set himself ablaze. Monks fought with police and took the then still-alive monk into the temple.
"All that remained were white traces on the asphalt from the fire extinguishers," he said of the site where his friend committed suicide.
Rabten, who did not witness the grisly act and says he was not involved, went into hiding, dressing in lay clothes and growing his hair to escape arrest.
"There were plain-clothed police on every corner, there were huge military trucks with armed soldiers and machine guns," he said.
China considers the Dalai Lama a dangerous separatist and hopes Tibetan resistance will fade when the 76-six-year-old dies. It says it has brought economic growth and education to a backward, feudal society previously ruled by a theocracy.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Dalai Lama has for years said he is seeks autonomy and religious freedom in Tibet, not independence. This "middle way" policy has never convinced Beijing. Many exiles say the fight must be for full independence.
'RIGHT OR WRONG?'
"Immolations, right or wrong?" read one flier announcing a discussion group in Dharamsala, where shaven-headed monks and nuns rub shoulders with backpackers in narrow streets of gabled temples and prayer wheels.
This is the question playing on the minds of the holy men and second generation exiles who are trying to keep an ancient culture alive in their new home.
The burnings add a dark twist to the tale of Tibetan resistance. Some Buddhists say suicide is violence and therefore unacceptable. Others see self-sacrifice for a greater cause as legitimate.
"What the monks do in Tibet is all their own decision, and we don't feel we are in a position to tell them to don't do it," said Kunchok Gyamtso, a senior member of the Kirti monastery in Dharamsala.
For many young Tibetans in town, the answer is clear -- the situation across the Himalayas has reached unbearable levels.
Tenzin Chokey is the general secretary of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which has fought for full independence for decades and says the immolations are a clear message the world must do more.
"How many more lives exactly does the world need? Is it the method? Is it too soft for the world? Because you are only taking your own life and not that of others?" she said.
"If we had independence as a goal, and if that is what we push for, the world leaders will also have to respond to the voice of the Tibetan people."
Perhaps emboldened by his formal departure from politics in March, the Dalai Lama has blamed the burnings on "cultural genocide" by the Chinese and has not directly called for them to stop, in contrast to his call for an end to protests ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
In the present crisis there are a number of different voices within the exile community and the Dalai Lama's devolution of political power has left a vacuum of authority that the young secular government has yet to fully fill.
The Kirti Rinpoche has some sway over what the Dalai Lama says about immolations because it is mostly his monks burning themselves in China.
He has not called for an end to the immolations.
There are signs Beijing is considering a softer approach to Tibet as the immolations draw international attention to the crackdown, despite strict media controls.
This week, the Communist party chief in the Tibet Autonomous Region, an economist, promised healthcare, welfare payments and television connections for monks.
The Oracle of Nechung, a monk who enters into a trance to offer advice to the Dalai Lama and Sangay, said Xi Jinping, who is likely to be named China's president next year, could be more responsive to calls for democracy from Tibet.
"The world is changing, for example what is happening in Arab countries," the oracle, Thupten Ngodup, said at his temple in Dharamsala.
"In 2012 a huge reshuffle of leadership is going to take place, I think they will absorb those ideas." Ngodup said.
Kirti monastery's Gyamtso, who left Tibet in 1993 echoed the optimism but worried democratic reforms in China will come too late to save Tibetan culture.
"Time is not on our side, with these kinds of policies going on, in the near future Tibet as a nation will be destroyed, the environment, culture, everything," he said to the sound of a temple bell and pattering feet as young monks ran to lunch.