By Randall Palmer
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Beijing's attempts to stop Tibetans setting themselves on fire to protest against Chinese rule are counter-productive and are only provoking more self-immolations, the Tibetan prime minister in exile told Reuters on Tuesday.
Lobsang Sangay, who replaced the Dalai Lama as the political leader of exiled Tibetans in 2011, said Beijing first branded self-immolators as thieves and then as homeless. Later they blamed his government in exile.
"Then they started criminalizing it, prosecuting not just the self-immolators (but also) their family members quite strongly in the months of December and January. But now self-immolation has continued," Sangay said.
"So that means that no matter how hardline their policies, no matter how much they crack down on Tibetans, it doesn't seem to work. So in that sense, it's high time they review their policies and acknowledge that it's not working and then address the issue more realistically."
In early February, Chinese state media said the authorities had detained 70 "criminal suspects" in a crackdown on self-immolations.
Sangay, a Harvard-educated lawyer, said 107 Tibetans had set themselves on fire since 2009, including six or seven this year.
"The blame squarely lies with Beijing. Their hard-line policies are making Tibetans self-immolate," he said, speaking in a room in the Canadian Parliament before testifying to a human rights subcommittee of the House of Commons.
"We discourage the actions, but support the aspirations," Sangay said, referring to those who have chosen self-immolation. "How much more forceful can we be? We've said, 'Don't do it. Life is precious.'"
In subsequent remarks to reporters, Sangay challenged the Canadian government to send Ambassador Andrew Bennett of its newly formed Office of Religious Freedom to Tibet to investigate the situation.
"The Chinese government does claim that Tibetans enjoy religious freedom and that the international community is welcome to visit Tibetan monasteries and nunneries to assess the situation for themselves," he said.
"If that is the case, then a request from the Canadian government (to visit) should be fulfilled."
Sangay told Reuters he has not noticed any change in policy towards Tibet or minorities with the new leadership in China, noting, for instance, that the Politburo and Central Committee have fewer representatives of minorities than before.
However, looking ahead to the annual meeting of parliament next week when Communist Party chief Xi Jinping assumes the reins of state power from President Hu Jintao, he added: "We remain hopeful that they (will) change."
Sangay voiced appreciation for support to the Tibetan cause, including meetings between the Dalai Lama and U.S. President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Even so, more needed to be done and fear of losing trade must not stop governments from speaking out more consistently, he said.
"You cannot simply just give your money to China and then at the same time not stand up for morals as well. That's a win-win proposition for China and a lose-lose proposition for Canada," he said.
(Reporting by Randall Palmer; Editing by David Brunnstrom)