Chinese officials yesterday sought to play down the growing number of self-immolations by Tibetans, branding those who set themselves ablaze to protest Beijing's rule as outcasts and criminals being controlled by the Dalai Lama.
About 24 Tibetans are believed to have set themselves on fire in the past year, many in Aba, a prefecture in Sichuan province with a large Tibetan population. Protests in the area calling for greater autonomy erupted into deadly riots four years ago.
Wu Zegang, the government's administrator in Aba, alleged yesterday that the self-immolations were "orchestrated and supported" by the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader. "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 Mr Wu, himself an ethnic Tibetan.
Li Changping, a member of the Communist Party committee that governs Sichuan said "about 20 or so" people have set themselves on fire there in the past two years.
China insists that it treats minority groups fairly, and is investing heavily in the region. But Tibetans say their religion and culture are being suppressed, and they demand the exiled Dalai Lama be allowed to return to China.
The Buddhist leader has made clear he does not encourage the self-immolations, but the dramatic protests show little sign of subsiding. Three more people are reported to have burnt themselves to death since Saturday. The official Xinhua news agency yesterday acknowledged that a 20-year-old woman died after setting herself on fire at the weekend. It blamed the incident on depression rather than dissent.
Local officials said the woman, Tsering Kyi, had been taken to hospital after hitting her head and suffered fainting spells before setting herself on fire. Xinhua said her school grades started to slip, "which put a lot of pressure on her and made her lose her courage for life and study".
The outspoken Tibetan blogger known as Woeser said this was an attempt to sully the image of the protesters. "The government's mouthpiece, Xinhua, is trying to stain their image," she said. "Of course, the Chinese government clearly knows that such stigmatisation of Tibetans is not effective."
She said that the comments by the Aba administrator reflected official concern that the self-immolations flew in the face of the state narrative of a harmonious Tibet.
"They always say Tibetans are having a happy life. The Tibetans were liberated and since then they have enjoyed a happy life given by the Party. But the people burning themselves are aged 17 to 41 years, some are nuns, some are monks, some are farmers and nomads, fathers, mothers – they are all ordinary people,"
Woeser said in a phone interview from her home, where she is under unofficial house arrest. "The reality is that many people are not happy, that Tibet is not really liberated and this is embarrassing for the central government."
In other incidents in the past week, a mother of four and an 18-year-old died after setting themselves ablaze.
Tibet is on the agenda at the National People's Congress in Beijing this week. At the congress yesterday, a reporter asked Tibet's governor, Padma Choling, if he thought the Dalai Lama should set himself on fire. "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," he replied. "Life is precious. I do not hope that anyone will self-immolate."