WASHINGTON – The head of the Tibetan government-in-exile urged the U.S. government on Wednesday to press China for access to a region where 10 young Tibetans have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.
Lobsang Sangay said the self-immolations by protesters shouting Tibetan freedom slogans and their support for exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, showed China's "hardline policies" were not working.
Nine men and one woman, in their late teens and 20s, have set themselves on fire since March. Most of the immolations have occurred in Aba, a town in Sichuan near Tibet that has been the site of a series of protests led by Buddhist monks. At least five of the 10 have died of their injuries.
Sangay, who has been meeting lawmakers in Washington, urged the U.S. government to press China to allow an international delegation access to that region of Tibet to look into the causes behind the immolations, and to allow news media to visit too.
Darragh Paradiso, State Department spokeswoman for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said the U.S. government repeatedly has urged access for both journalists and diplomats and has directly raised its serious concern about the self-immolations with China.
"We again call on the Chinese government to respect the rights of all Chinese citizens ... and particularly to respect the rights of Tibetans and to resolve the underlying grievances of China's Tibetan population," she said in an email.
The Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959 amid an abortive anti-Beijing uprising and is reviled by China's communist government. Earlier this year, the Dalai Lama delegated his political powers to Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard-trained legal scholar who won an April election among Tibetan exiles.
Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama and his supporters of encouraging the immolations, which Sangay denied.
He said the Tibetan exile administration based in northern India has a sacred duty to show solidarity with the protesters, but he urged them not to resort to "desperate acts." He said it would be better for them to leave and join the Tibetan exile movement.
"We do not encourage protest inside Tibet or for that matter self-immolation because we know the consequences," Sangay told a news conference. "If you protest in Tibet, more often than not you get arrested, or beaten up, sometimes tortured, sometimes you disappear, sometimes you die."
He said it was unclear why the Tibetan protesters got the idea of self-immolation. He said they may have been inspired by the Tunisian vendor who set himself on fire, helping spark the Arab Spring uprisings against authoritarian regimes.
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