A Tibetan man who disappeared under mysterious circumstances is presumed dead, and activists are accusing Chinese security forces of orchestrating his murder.
The man, 57-year-old Dorjee Rabten, had been prepared to set himself on fire to protest Chinese rule, and had traveled to the city of Siling.
"On August 23, Chinese security personnel murdered Dorjee Rabten in Siling's 'Pachen' guest house," Gyaltsen Choedak, an exiled Tibetan with close contacts in the region, told VOA's Tibetan service.
Choedak and other sources, who asked to remain anonymous, accuse Chinese security forces of killing Rabten to prevent him from immolating himself and potentially using his death to bring attention to what he and others view as unjust Chinese rule in Tibet.
Word of Rabten's death was slow to get out. Choedak said it was not until Rabten's family was unable to reach him and went to Siling to look for him that they finally began to get some information.
"The Chinese security official called Dorjee Rabten’s elder son, Drukjham Gyal, and told him that he should come at once to pick up the body," Choedak said. "He was also warned that he could not bring any other member of his family."
But Choedak said the son never got the body or an explanation of how his father died. Instead, he was given what he was told was his father’s ashes and a warning that the family would face severe consequences if they shared anything about the death with outsiders.
VOA made numerous phone calls to the Chinese Embassy in Washington and the Chinese Consulate General in New York, but was unable to reach any officials for comment.
Change in tactics?
If the accusation is true, it would represent a significant escalation in China's ongoing crackdown against Tibetans pushing for more autonomy.
"The Chinese response on the ground seems to be a great show of force, an attempt to exert control, but in the main it has not been a violent response," said Mary Beth Markey, president of the International Campaign for Tibet.
Markey said it would be surprising for China to resort to more heavy-handed tactics now, with a once-in-a-decade change in leadership looming.
"With all the tremendous concerns that this transition go smoothly, I don't think the Chinese are looking for any extreme responses inside Tibet," she said.
Still, over the past several weeks and months, Chinese security forces have become more active, going after anyone involved in self-immolations. Earlier this month, Chinese police in Nagchu town arrested about 30 people, including the uncle, sister and brother in-law of a 43-year-old man who set himself on fire in protest.
Several monks also have been detained for taking pictures of a self-immolation.
Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson said the crackdown has become increasingly intrusive.
"[China is] placing more officials in monasteries, arresting monks, denying people access to the bodies of loved ones who've immolated," she said. "It really is sort of adding insult to injury."
Just the threat of more immolations appears to be having an impact.
"It's now fairly easy to photograph different parts of the security forces in downtown Lhasa, for example, walking around not just heavily armed with weapons, but carrying fire extinguishers as preparations to put out these immolations should they happen spontaneously," Richardson said.
The trend is clear. Since February of 2009, at least 57 Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese policy in Tibet. The Tibetan government-in-exile says 47 of those cases have resulted in deaths.
At first, many of those setting themselves on fire were monks. That is no longer the case.
"We're seeing lay people - mothers, fathers, grandfathers - self-immolating," Markey said. "So, if there's any trend it is a broadening of the self-immolations, both in whose doing them and where they're taking place."
Richardson, with Human Rights Watch, sees a direct connection with China's refusal to change course in its Tibet policy.
"It's very hard to see those as anything other than an expression of desperation that some Tibetans feel about the restrictions they're living under," she said.
China has denounced self-immolators as terrorists, and according to Human Rights Watch, has embarked on a campaign to prevent images of self-immolations from spreading across China or even making it to the rest of the world.
But despite such efforts, there are no other known cases in which Chinese officials stopped a self-immolation by killing the would-be protester.
In fact, before would-be self-immolator Dorjee Rabten died under mysterious circumstances, Chinese security officials already had stopped him once from setting himself on fire.
Tibetan exile Choedak said his sources told him Rabten first came to the attention of Chinese security officials August 17, when he traveled to a town in eastern Tibet.
"He sent a Chinese Muslim to buy kerosene, but this Chinese Muslim must have informed the security people," Choedak said. "Rabten was arrested on that day."
But Choedak said instead of taking Rabten into custody, Chinese security returned him to his family with a warning. But Choedak said Rabten also was put under surveillance, with Chinese security operatives following him to Siling.
Rabten told family members he was making the trip to see a doctor. But Choedak said Rabten's family now believes the visit was likely a cover, and that his goal was self-immolation.
Choedak also said Rabten's family and many others in their community are convinced Rabten never got the chance to set himself on fire in one final act of defiance.
Groups like the International Campaign for Tibet and Human Rights Watch believe the grisly images of Tibetan protesters on fire are keeping Tibet in the spotlight.
Last week, the U.S. State Department confirmed its ambassador to China, Gary Locke, visited Aba Prefecture of Sichuan Province, a predominantly Tibetan region. But the confirmation came only after a photo of the visit appeared on Twitter and in The New York Times.
HRW's Richardson said the photo - taken by a member of Locke's staff - cannot be overlooked.
"There is a very evocative photograph of him [U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke] shaking hands with a monk," she said. "I think that's actually a more powerful statement than the standard line being repeated by State."
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the visit to Aba and surrounding villages was part of a larger trip to Chongqing and Sichuan provinces in September. She also reiterated Washington's "grave concern" about the rising number of immolations, urging "better dialogue" between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives.
However, just the visit itself could be significant.
Locke visited two monasteries in Songpan, an area roughly 160 kilometers east of the town of Aba, which is called Ngaba by Tibetans and which has seen 26 of the self-immolations since 2009.
Still, observers say it is unlikely there will be any movement from the Chinese on Tibet until after the country's new leadership, set to be chosen next month, is firmly in place. In the meantime, they say it is likely more Tibetans will choose to set themselves on fire.