Tibetans gather with picture of Dalai Lama in Serthar

Tibetan Buddhist monks walk in the compound of Serthar Monastery in Tibet.

Tibetan Buddhist monks walk in the compound of Serthar Monastery in Tibet, in a file photo taken on 29 July 2010. File photo/Photographer unknown

By Louise Watt | AP

BEIJING, China, 17 January 2012

Dozens of Tibetans, including monks, held up a portrait of the Dalai Lama in a community in southwestern China in an act of defiance days after other Tibetans set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule.

Police in “Serthar”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seda_County (Ch: Seda) county said Tuesday that officers dealt with the gathering, but declined to say whether any of the Tibetans were arrested in the incident Monday.

China is sensitive to protests by Tibetans because they threaten its control over its western region and may inspire protests in other parts of China by people with possible grievances against the government.

At least 16 Buddhist monks, nuns and other Tibetans are believed to have set themselves on fire in the past year — four this month — mostly in traditionally Tibetan areas of Sichuan province. Most have chanted for Tibetan freedom and the return of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, who fled to India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

China has vilified the Dalai Lama for more than a decade, accusing him of a campaign to split the Himalayan region from the rest of China, and has tried to get monks to denounce him in political education programmes held in religious institutions in Tibetan areas. The Dalai Lama says he is only seeking increased autonomy for Tibet.

On Monday, fewer than 100 Tibetans gathered and held a portrait of the Dalai Lama, said the official at Serthar county public security bureau in Sichuan province who gave only his surname, Wang. “The New Year festival is coming up so they want to draw attention by creating an incident,” he said, referring to the Chinese New Year later this month.

Wang said police dealt with the incident, but declined to give any further details.

An official from the Serthar county government said there was no protest Monday.

Fears of protests by Tibetans were why Premier Wen Jiabao kept a trip to Nepal at the weekend secret, according to the Nepalese prime minister. Wen arrived Saturday in the tiny Himalayan nation that is home to thousands of Tibetan refugees.

“The visit was not announced, as the Tibetan activities have intensified recently,” Baburam Bhattarai was quoted as saying in Monday’s English-language Republica newspaper.

Tibetans in Nepal regularly protest against Chinese restrictions on Tibetan religion and culture. In November, a man wearing the robes of a Tibetan Buddhist monk set himself on fire in the Nepalese capital, Kathmandu, emulating the self-immolations in China. The most recent was on Saturday in Sichuan.

Dicki Chhoyang, a Cabinet member of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamshala, India, said China could have expected protests because of “the large presence of Tibetans inside Nepal and the fact that China has been so forceful in influencing Nepal’s treatment of Tibetans inside Nepal.” She said this included restricting Tibetans’ political activities and refusing to issue refugee cards to Tibetan refugees.

In response to a question Monday about why Wen’s trip to Nepal was unannounced, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said it “was arranged on ad hoc basis.” He said it showed the “importance the Chinese side gives to China-Nepal relations.”

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