INTERVIEW-Tibetan leader says duty to make immolations count

Fri Nov 11, 2011 12:15am IST

* At least 11 people set themselves on fire since March

* Sangay blames China's increasingly heavy-handed rule

* He and Dalai Lama want real autonomy, not independence

By Frank Jack Daniel

DHARAMSALA, India, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Tibet's prime minister-in-exile said on Thursday he was not encouraging Tibetans to burn themselves to death in protest at Chinese repression but it was his sacred duty to show support for the men and women who have chosen such drastic steps.

A wave of self-immolations has seen at least 11 people, mainly Buddhist monks and nuns, set themselves ablaze in predominantly Tibetan areas of China since March, following a crackdown at monasteries.

Lobsang Sangay, the Harvard educated lawyer who this year replaced the Dalai Lama as the political leader of the exiled Tibetans, said an increased Chinese military presence around monasteries was "undeclared martial law."

"Once a protest takes place it becomes our sacred duty to show solidarity and support, support for the voice that they raise, so the life that they sacrifice or the torture that they endure do not go in vain," Sangay told Reuters.

"My duty as a political leader is echo or if possible magnify these voices, with sadness and pain obviously," he said at his offices in the Himalayan town of Dharamsala in India.

He did not repeat an appeal by one of the most senior exiled monks, the Karmapa Lama, who on Wednesday urged Tibetans in China not to set themselves on fire.

"We want Tibetan people to live, we want Tibetan people to lead, definitely. But ... the motivation is for Tibet and for Tibetan people and their intention is also very clear, not to harm anyone," he said.

REAL AUTONOMY

In the latest incident, a Tibetan exile in Nepal set his clothes alight on Thursday while shouting "Long live Tibet." Other Tibetans extinguished the flames before he suffered serious injuries, a witness said.

China says Tibetans are free to practice their faith and blames the Nobel Peace Prize winning Dalai Lama, who fled Tibet for India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, for inciting the immolations.

Sangay denied that and repeated he and the Dalai Lama are not seeking Tibet's independence from China, only real autonomy for their homeland. He said China's increasingly heavy-handed rule after six decades of occupation was to blame.

"There was an uprising in 2008, the crackdown that followed has changed the political situation dramatically," Sangay said, adding the intrusive presence of security forces was disrupting monastic life -- a central part of Tibet's unique culture. (Additional reporting by Abhishek Madhukar; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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