BEIJING – China has released a documentary accusing the Dalai Lama of orchestrating a wave of self-immolations by Tibetans, in its most elaborate attempt so far to shape international opinion about the protests against Chinese rule.
The documentary shown globally by state broadcaster China Central Television features police surveillance footage of the fiery protests. Mostly lone Tibetans are seen ablaze on small town roads before being blasted by security forces with fire extinguishers or covered with blankets.
Tibetans interviewed describe contacting monks living in exile and sending them photographs of would-be protesters — evidence, the documentary says, of collusion. A narrator quotes comments supposedly made by the Dalai Lama in support of the self-immolations together with footage of Tibetans being treated in hospital for severe burns.
All told, the piece, titled "The Dalai clique and self-immolation violent incidents," marks the government's most extensive effort to cast blame on the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader for protests that have touched Tibetans emotionally and presented an image problem for Beijing.
At least 34 Buddhist monks, nuns and Tibetan lay people have set themselves on fire in the past 14 months in what Tibetans see as an act of sacrifice to highlight China's repressive policies on religion and culture.
A spokesman for the self-proclaimed Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharmsala, India, said he had not seen the documentary but denied that the Dalai Lama or exiled Tibetans have been instigating the protests. Instead, he said, Beijing's policies are causing the protests.
"When the government stops this oppression inside Tibet, the self-immolations will stop. That's what we hope and believe will happen. But it's in their hands," said the spokesman, Tashi, who like many Tibetans uses one name.
The program also shows how the government plans to use the newly acquired global reach of its state-owned news media. CCTV, the national broadcaster, runs programming in at least half a dozen languages, claiming to reach 219 million households in 156 countries.
Reached by phone, CCTV officials said that the documentary was aired on the network's English, French, Spanish, Arabic and Russian channels twice earlier this month as well as on CCTV-4, the international Chinese language station.
But later — possibly because it was becoming apparent that the documentary's content was drawing scrutiny — one of them said they were not sure where, when or if it aired. A version has been posted on YouTube.
"They want to kind of foist their message, a one-sided message, on the rest of the world," said David Bandurski, a researcher with Hong Kong-based China Media Project.
"If they want to be part of the conversation internationally and influence public opinion, they have to see themselves as part of a kind of dialogue, but they're not really interested in that kind of dialogue," Bandurski said.
Tsering Woeser, a Tibetan poet and activist, said she saw the documentary on CCTV-4 when it aired at 2:20 a.m. on May 7. She found it a disappointing elaboration on the hardline position the government has taken since it poured heavy security into Tibetan areas after a mass uprising against Chinese rule in 2008.
"I am saddened to realize by watching this film that there are no signs of self reflection coming from the authorities, and that they are still continuing with the vicious cycle of ignoring the signals of despair sent out repeatedly by Tibetans," Woeser said.
China is touchy about perceived challenges to its rule over Tibet since communist forces entered the region six decades ago. While Beijing has poured investment into the region to raise standards of living and win over Tibetans, it has often appeared to be losing a global public relations battle against the Dalai Lama and his high-profile supporters like the Hollywood actor Richard Gere.
On Tuesday, China criticized British Prime Minister David Cameron for meeting with the Dalai Lama, saying it "hurts the feelings of the Chinese people" and amounts to support for Tibet's independence from Chinese rule.
The documentary attempts to discredit the immolations, portraying everyone involved as misguided, deceitful and manipulative. In one example, it says two monks who set themselves on fire in January had hired a prostitute the night before the protest.
It zeroes in on one immolation, that of the monk Phuntsog, who set himself on fire on March 16 last year outside Kirti monastery, an important religious and cultural center in the town of Aba, where many of the burnings have taken place.
Another Kirti monk says in an interview that he helped Phuntsog prepare for the immolation, contacted a monk living in exile in India about the plan and sent him photographs of Phuntsog ahead of time.
The program says Phuntsog died because Tibetan monks refused to take him to a hospital for treatment. Tibetan rights groups have said the monk was beaten by security forces as they were extinguishing the flames.
"The demands by the people who self-immolate are always the same. It is 'We want freedom,' and 'We want the Dalai Lama to return.' These are slogans used by all those who self-immolate," said Tashi, the exile government spokesman. "We don't incite them to do this."
Associated Press writer Katy Daigle contributed to this report from New Delhi.