Chinese officials sought today to discredit Tibetans who have set themselves on fire to protest China's rule over their region, calling them outcasts, criminals and mentally ill people manipulated by the exiled Dalai Lama.
The Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader has said he does not encourage the self-immolations. However, Chinese officials have sought to portray the past year's wave of about two dozen immolations — including three since Saturday — as the result of outside orchestration rather than what activists say is local unrest over the government's suppression of Tibetan religion and culture.
Many of the protesters have been linked to a Buddhist monastery in the mountainous Aba prefecture of Sichuan province.
"Some of the suicides are committed by clerics returning to lay life, and they all have criminal records or suspicious activities. They have a very bad reputation in society," said Wu Zegang, an ethnic Tibetan who is the government's top administrator in Aba.
Wu told reporters in Beijing that the self-immolations were "orchestrated and supported" by the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence forces. He said that before setting themselves on fire, the immolators shouted "independence for Tibet and other slogans that aim to divide the nation."
The Dalai Lama has praised the courage of those who engage in self-immolation and has attributed the protests to what he calls China's "cultural genocide" in Tibet. But he also says he does not encourage the protests, noting that they could invite an even harsher crackdown.
At a meeting today of the Tibetan delegation to the National People's Congress in Beijing, a reporter asked whether the region's leaders thought the Dalai Lama should himself self-immolate, referencing alleged online calls for the spiritual leader to do so.
Padma Choling, Tibet's governor, said he didn't think anyone should set themselves on fire.
"No matter who self-immolates, it is an unhuman and immoral act," Choling said. "If the Dalai immolates himself, that's his business and has nothing to do with me but regardless of who it is, I do not advocate it. Life is precious. I do not hope that anyone will self-immolate. What's the point?"