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BEIJING (Reuters) - At least 1,000 ethnic Tibetan students, demanding protection of their culture, protested in a western Chinese town against curbs on the use of their language, residents and a rights group said Wednesday.
The students marched through Tongren, also known as Rebkong, Tuesday, without police interference, residents contacted by telephone and the London-based Free Tibet campaign group said.
Tongren is a heavily Tibetan area of the Chinese province of Qinghai and the region where exiled Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was born.
Three residents contacted by telephone said that at least 1,000 students had demonstrated, shouting slogans in support of protecting their culture.
"The police did not get involved," said one resident, who asked not to be identified, citing the sensitive nature of the case.
"They (the protesters) went home in the early afternoon after government officials came out and talked with them," the resident added, saying there was no sign of stepped up policing in Tongren following the incident.
The Tongren and Qinghai governments had no immediate comment on the protest when contacted by Reuters.
Free Tibet put the number of demonstrators at between 5,000 and 9,000, citing witnesses, and said the protest was set off by reforms to education policy limiting the use of the Tibetan language in schools and the use of Chinese to teach most subjects.
"The Chinese are enforcing reforms which remind me of the Cultural Revolution," the group quoted one unnamed former Tongren teacher as saying. "This reform is not only a threat to our mother tongue, but is in direct violation of the Chinese constitution, which is meant to protect our rights."
China has ruled the Tibet Autonomous Region with an iron fist since People's Liberation Army troops marched into Tibet in 1950, but normally give much greater leeway to Tibetans in other parts of China, such as Qinghai.
Tibetan is an official language in Tibet and parts of China where Tibetans have traditionally been the main ethnic group.
Beijing has for decades promoted standard Mandarin Chinese as a way of unifying a diverse country, and many Tibetans say they have little choice but to learn Mandarin if they want to get ahead in modern China.
At least 19 people died in protests against Chinese rule in March 2008, which sparked waves of unrest across Tibetan areas. Tibetan exile groups say more than 200 people died in the subsequent crackdown, and sporadic protests have continued since.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Ken Wills