BEIJING -- Chinese officials on Friday renewed their accusations that exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and those around him are responsible for instigating a wave of self-immolations in China.
The protests that have seen has many as 68 ethnic Tibetans set themselves on fire in the past 20 months – 55 of whom reportedly have died – are unprecedented in modern Tibetan history, and they’ve sharply challenged the Chinese Communist Party’s usual means of pacifying trouble. Neither Beijing’s investment in infrastructure in ethnic Tibetan areas nor its deployment of police and a tough security crackdown has ended the campaign. Many in China’s Tibetan enclaves say the protests are the result of an authoritarian regime that’s targeted their culture, language and religion.
At a meeting of party leaders from western Sichuan province, where more than half the self-immolations have occurred, an official accused the Dalai Lama and the “Dalai clique” of masterminding the incidents.
“They are the plotters, instigators, organizers and directors of self-immolation incidents in the Tibetan area,” Li Changping, a member of the Communist Party’s provincial standing committee in Sichuan, said during a question-and-answer session with reporters.
Li and his fellow officials were in Beijing for the party’s 18th National Congress, an assembly that will usher in a changeover of China’s top leadership. On Wednesday, the day before the congress began, three teenage monks in Sichuan reportedly burned themselves as a trio. The youngest, 15-year-old Dorjee, died at the scene, according to London-based Free Tibet. Security forces took the two 16-year-olds to a hospital.
“These protests are aimed at sending the next generation of China’s unelected regime a clear signal that Tibetans will continue to fight for their freedom despite China’s efforts to suppress and intimidate them,” Stephanie Brigden, Free Tibet’s director, said in an emailed statement.
At least six ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire since Sunday, according to rights groups. On Friday, thousands of students in the province of Qinghai, where two men reportedly lit themselves on fire from Wednesday to Thursday, marched with “slogans demanding equality of nationality, freedom for Tibetans and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet,” according to a statement by the Tibetan government in exile, which is based in Dharamsala, India.
Because the Chinese government has made access to those areas difficult, and at times impossible, for foreign reporters, much of what’s known is through information released by activists with contacts in the region and the Tibetan government in exile. However, many ethnic Tibetans in Qinghai and Sichuan told a McClatchy reporter earlier this year that the self-immolations were in reaction to Chinese government policy and not due to any schemes by the Dalai Lama.
A predominantly Tibetan area in the north of Sichuan has been the epicenter of the self-immolations, which began in March 2011 with a monk at the Kirti Monastery.
In his remarks on Friday, Li, the Sichuan official, blamed the trouble at Kirti in large part on a religious figure connected to the monastery. From his description, Li was clearly speaking of Kirti Rinpoche, the exiled abbot of the monastery, who, like the Dalai Lama, fled to India in 1959.
Li didn’t explain how Kirti Rinpoche, a man who says he was born in 1942, or others would be able to coordinate a sustained campaign of self-immolations in a region with a heavy police presence and where communication services are closely monitored and routinely cut.
From Sichuan, the self-immolations spread to ethnic Tibetan areas in Qinghai, adjoining Gansu province and Tibet itself, which Beijing rules as the Tibet Autonomous Region.
During a meeting of officials from the Tibet Autonomous Region on Friday – local delegations held gatherings throughout the day at the party congress – the region’s vice governor, Lobsang Gyaincain, also blamed the Dalai Lama’s followers for the protests, according to an account of the meeting by the Associated Press.
“The external Tibetan forces and the Dalai clique are sacrificing other people’s lives to attain their secret political motives,” he was quoted as saying.
Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report.