Updated at 10:10 a.m. EST on 2012-03-15
Tibetans have reignited a campaign to highlight language rights in Tibetan-populated areas, with about 4,000 students taking to the streets in three counties in China's northwestern Qinghai province on Wednesday to protest a possible change in the medium of instruction in schools.
The protests against a proposed change from Tibetan to Chinese language occurred in schools in Rebkong (in Chinese, Tongren), Tsekhog (Zeku) and Kangtsa (Gangcha) counties, according to a Tibetan exile spokesman for the Rebkong community based in the Indian hilltown of Dharamsala.
It was the biggest protest since October 2010 when thousands of Tibetan middle and primary school pupils from four different Tibetan autonomous prefectures in Qinghai Province demonstrated for days against a language change policy.
On Wednesday, they "protested against the Chinese [language] policy," the spokesman said.
The current wave of language protests began on March 4, when around 700 students from the Rebkong County Middle School of Nationalities returned to their school after a holiday break to find their textbooks for the new term written in Chinese, the London-based rights group Free Tibet said in a March 8 statement.
"They started ripping the books up and tried to march into the town to call for language rights," but were stopped by their teachers from proceeding into town, the group said.
This week's protests came as a Tibetan monk set himself ablaze Wednesday at his monastery in Rebkong in Malho (in Chinese, Huangnan) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, triggering demonstrations by hundreds of monks and others against Chinese rule in Tibetan-populated areas.
The self-immolation on Wednesday was the 28th by Tibetans since they began a wave of fiery protests in February 2009 to challenge Beijing's rule and call for the return of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.
The student demonstrations on Wednesday began when several hundred students of three schools—Rebkong Yushu Middle School, Rebkong County Middle School of Nationalities and Gedun Choephel School—gathered to criticize planned changes to the education policy.
Joining the protests were more than 2,500 students of Rebkong and Tsekhog counties "demanding equality for all nationalities [and] freedom of language," another exile source said, quoting local contacts in the region.
They also called for the removal of Chinese military barracks in Tsekhog county, the source said.
"The students marched to the county police station, the office of local armed paramilitary forces, and the county government center," the source said.
"Armed police and paramilitary forces did arrive at the scene, but there were no reports of cracking down or the detention of any students," according to the source.
Also on Wednesday, about 100 students in Kangtsa county protested against Chinese rule, calling for self-ownership of land and "equality for languages."
They marched to the Kangtsa county center and were stopped by police when they tried to enter the street leading to the town. They returned to their schools and shouted slogans.
Tensions have heightened in Tibetan-populated provinces and in the Tibet Autonomous Region following a Chinese security clampdown and the detention of hundreds of monks since early last year.
Reported by Chakmo Tso and Dorjee Tso for RFA's Tibetan service. Translation by Karma Dorjee. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.