BEIJING — Chinese officials lashed out Wednesday against Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, accusing him and his allies of orchestrating a string of self-immolations in ethnic Tibetan areas that have gained international attention and renewed criticism of China’s authoritarian regime.
“The Dalai Lama clique and overseas separatist forces are leading Tibetan Buddhism onto the track of extremism,” said Wu Zegang, an ethnic Tibetan and the government head of the Aba prefecture in the southwestern province of Sichuan, where most of the fiery protests have taken place.
Tibetan rights groups estimate that at least 25 people, most of them former or current Buddhist clergy, have set themselves on fire in the past year, an unprecedented act in modern Tibetan history. Of those 25,18 have died, according to rights groups.
Three additional self-immolations have been reported since Saturday alone, including one by a mother in her early 30s said to have shouted “Return his holiness” _ the Dalai Lama _“to Tibet” and “We need freedom.”
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Speaking at a panel of local officials during the annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress, a mostly rubber-stamp body, Wu and others described the self-immolations as a coordinated plot.
“Photos revealing the daily lives of most of the self-immolaters had been sent in advance to separatist forces abroad,” Wu said at an event open to the press, according to a translation by the state Xinhua news service. “These photos, contrasted by pictures depicting the self-immolation sites, were immediately dispersed by separatist forces to play up the situation.”
That description was at odds with past incidents, however, when rights group websites frequently have had only partial biographical details of those who'd set themselves on fire. The groups also have lagged before posting photographs of those who’ve self-immolated _ usually just grainy headshots _ and at times upload none at all.
Wu also charged that “to encourage self-immolations, they even offer a price of compensation for the dead. All these prove that self-immolations are premeditated political moves.”
Chinese authorities go to great lengths to prevent foreign journalists from entering ethnic Tibetan areas in Sichuan to check such claims, detaining reporters at roadblocks and questioning them before escorting their vehicles out of the area. The province abuts Tibet, which the Chinese government officially administers as an autonomous region but controls by a strict security regime.
The remarks by China’s officials conflicted with interviews conducted by McClatchy and others who’ve slipped into villages near the town of Aba, where the majority of self-immolations have occurred, and across Sichuan province.
Local ethnic Tibetans have said the self-immolations are a reaction to a repressive Chinese government that curbs their culture, language and religion. That, combined with desperation over the seeming impossibility of the Dalai Lama ever returning to Tibet, which he fled in 1959, has led to a deep sense of hopelessness, they say.
Nonetheless, the Communist Party secretary of Sichuan, Liu Qibao, said at the meeting that “public complaints about cultural repression do not exist. On the contrary, Tibetan culture is flourishing.”
At the beginning of the month, a senior Chinese leader had made plain that the government will brook no dissent on the issue.
Jia Qinglin, a member of the nation’s ruling politburo standing committee, said that authorities should “resolutely crush the Dalai Lama clique's conspiracy of making Tibetan-inhabited areas unstable, thus making the masses able to live and work there comfortably.”
During another panel Wednesday, in which delegates to the People’s Congress read reports and then took questions from journalists, the governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region was asked by a reporter about his reaction to online calls for the Dalai Lama himself to self-immolate.
“No matter who self-immolates, I think it’s an inhumane and immoral act," said Padma Choling, also an ethnic Tibetan. He added of the Dalai Lama that “if he is willing to self-immolate, that’s his business and has nothing to do with me.”
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