A Tibetan lama in southwest China dodges questions about a wave of self-immolations in the region, saying his monks are forbidden even to speak about the protests against religious repression.

Standing under the new roof of the Buddhist monastery's main hall, the maroon-clad monk nervously fingers his prayer beads as he glances across a small plaza to a police station a stone's throw away.

The lama, whose name AFP is withholding out of concern for his safety, says his monks all undergo "political education" by the state and that even mentioning the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama will "do no good".

"Yes, we have political education. We must study harmonious socialism, but our monks spend most of their time studying the scriptures," said the lama.

The senior monk, in his fifties, was keen to stress that they are still able to practice their religion and that things have improved since the Cultural Revolution, when communist zealots destroyed cultural heritage in Tibet and elsewhere.

"They have assured us that we will never return to the Cultural Revolution," he said.

Eight Buddhist monks and one nun have set themselves on fire this year in protest against what they say is religious and cultural repression in Tibetan areas of China.

Rights groups say at least five have died and the United States on Wednesday expressed "serious concern" over the situation, urging China to "address counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions".

Many monks interviewed by AFP during a visit to the area this week refused even to use the words "self-immolation" or to talk about the Dalai Lama, although all appeared to be closely following his words.

"We have no freedom," said one. "The situation was better before. A few years ago, before 2008, the situation was better, but now we basically have no freedom."

China has dramatically ramped up the military and police presence in areas with large Tibetan populations since the 2008 riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa.

Beijing's policies on religion have been felt particularly keenly in Tibetan communities, with Buddhism central to society. Each household traditionally sends one of their offspring to the monasteries to become a monk or nun.

At the monastery in Sichuan province's Shanba town, about 200 kilometres (125 miles) east of Aba county where most of the self-immolations have taken place, young novices played in the shadow of a towering peak sprinkled with fresh snow.

Inside the main temple the monastery's "living Buddha", a monk considered to be the reincarnation of a line of high-ranking lamas, blessed a Chinese couple and their child in Tibetan, while a senior monk translated into flawless Chinese.

After the blessing and the lighting of incense and candles, the couple donated 1,000 yuan ($150) to the temple.

Here, the monks live in relative harmony with the non-Tibetan population, but police stations have been built near almost all the monasteries in the area, a constant reminder of the underlying tensions with the authorities.

Kirti monastery in Aba has been under virtual lockdown since a young monk named Phuntsog set light to himself in March, sparking mass protests that led to a police crackdown.

On Monday, a nun in Aba became the first woman to self-immolate, calling for religious freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet as she set herself on fire.

Rights groups say the escalation in self-immolations is an indication of the desperation felt by the Buddhists, particularly as the taking of their own lives goes against their religious ideals.

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

He founded Tibet's government in exile in the northern Indian town of Dharamshala after being offered refuge there, and remains revered in China's Tibetan regions, but despised by the nation's Communist authorities.

China has invested heavily in developing Tibet and other areas with large Tibetan populations in recent years, including rebuilding monasteries damaged during the Cultural Revolution.

By steering clear of controversial issues the monastery in Shanba, which belongs to a separate sect of Tibetan Buddhism from that of the Dalai Lama, like many other monasteries in China's Tibetan-inhabited regions, is slowly rebuilding itself.

In the main hall the ornate wooden doors look freshly carved, while new frescos of Buddhist deities gleam from the building's giant walls.

"It does no good to talk about (the Dalai Lama). To show support for him will do us no good," the lama said as he lowered his head to hide the emotion in his eyes.

"I do not think they will allow him to return."