NEW DELHI – The political leader of Tibetan exiles says he is disappointed that dozens of self-immolations by Tibetans have not received the same world attention as the similar suicide of a Tunisian man that sparked the Arab Spring.
Lobsang Sangay said Monday the immolations are drastic actions taken by people prevented from carrying out other forms of protest against China's rule over Tibet. About 50 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in the past two years. Only nine have survived.
Beijing has accused Tibetan leaders of encouraging the suicides. Sangay condemned the incidents as anathema to the movement's commitment to non-violence, but said it is his duty to highlight why the protesters are dying.
He urged other countries to pay attention to the plight of his people.
"Ignoring us or not supporting us might send a message to other marginalized groups around the world that perhaps it is not worth investing in democracy and non-violence," he said.
Sangay said he was seeking autonomy for Tibet within the framework of the Chinese constitution and would remain committed to a dialogue with China. But he said a lot would depend on "the composition of the new leadership" once the government in Beijing changes at a party congress expected in October.
He said China spends billions of dollars on spectacles such as the 2008 Beijing Olympics to impress the world, but that allowing the return to Tibet of the Dalai Lama, the holiest Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, would do more than all of China's other efforts.
Sangay became head of Tibet's exile administration last year after the Dalai Lama stepped down as political leader of the Tibetan people. The Dalai Lama remains the Tibetan spiritual leader.
China claims Tibet has always been Chinese territory, but many Tibetans say the Himalayan region was independent for much of its history. Past talks between the two sides have made no discernible progress.
In December 2010, Manoubia Bouazizi touched off Tunisia's revolution — and ultimately the Arab Spring — when he set himself on fire after being slapped by a policewoman reprimanding him for selling fruit without a license.