Lobsang Sangay, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, yesterday said the spate of self-immolations in China was a strong message being sent by oppressed and desperate people who want to assert their freedom.
The Harvard scholar, who was elected prime minister in April last year, added he hoped a leadership transition in Beijing this year would bring a “new perspective” on Tibet.
More than 30 people have set themselves on fire in predominately Tibetan areas of China since March last year in protest at what they say is religious and cultural repression by the Chinese authorities.
“It means the situation is not bearable,” Sangay, 43, told the Sydney Morning Herald on a visit to Australia.
“It’s not just that it’s a desperate act, but also a political act,” he said. “Peaceful protests, peaceful rallies are not allowed. The statements they leave behind consistently say they want freedom.”
“The self-immolations are somehow an assertion of freedom — ‘you can restrain my freedom but I can choose to die as I want,’” he said.
China blames the Dalai Lama for inciting the self-immolations in a bid to split Tibet from the rest of the nation, and insists Tibetans now have better lives due to Chinese investment.
In an address to the National Press Club, Sangay said the spark for self-immolations was 2008 anti-government riots in Lhasa — unrest that subsequently spread to other Tibetan-inhabited areas of China.
“Since then, instead of responding positively or liberally, unfortunately the Chinese government has clamped down more,” he said, adding that the Tibetan capital was essentially closed to the outside world.
“The military walk up and down the streets and there has been an intensifying of the campaign to demonize the Dalai Lama,” he said. “How would you feel if you revered someone and you were asked to denounce him by standing on his picture or badmouthing him?”
“These are the reasons why Tibetans are taking these drastic action,” he said.
Most of the self-immolations have occurred since Sangay was elected, four months before he took office to assume political duties being relinquished by the Dalai Lama at the head of the India-based exiled government.
Asked if this showed that Tibetans feel more hopelessness as the Dalai Lama restricts his political activism, or whether it was an effort to push Sangay to take a harder line against China, he replied: “It’s too early to tell.”
“We have repeatedly asked them not to take drastic actions, including self-immolation, but they continue to do so,” he said.
Despite China’s consistently hardline stance on Tibet, Sangay said he was hopeful that change could occur with a new leadership.
“Given the past 50 years of experience, we haven’t had much reason for optimism, but as a human being I remain hopeful about the new leadership led by [Chinese Vice President] Xi Jinping (習近平),” he said.