In the biggest crackdown so far on the continuing self-immolations in Tibetan areas, Chinese authorities said on Thursday they had detained at least 70 Tibetans since November under a renewed campaign to stop the spreading incidents.

The detentions were made in Huangnan, a predominantly Tibetan area of the northwestern Qinghai province, which has witnessed many of the protests. At least 99 Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Chinese policies, with most protests reported in Qinghai and neighbouring Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

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Lyu Benqian, deputy chief of the Qinghai Provincial Public Security Department, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua news agency on Thursday that 12 of the 70 suspects had been “officially arrested over the self-immolation cases”. He accused “the Dalai Lama clique” of “masterminding and inciting” the self-immolations, alleging that photographs of the immolators had been sent overseas.

The Dalai Lama has strongly rejected China’s accusations, and has called on Beijing to put in place a fact-finding mission to establish the cause. The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader has, however, faced growing calls — even from within the Tibetan community — to call on young Tibetans to stop giving up their lives.

The Dalai Lama has said the protests were a sensitive issue, suggesting that while he certainly did not encourage the protests as alleged by China, he was also reluctant to make a statement that would sadden family members of those who sacrificed their lives for the Tibetan cause. The Dalai Lama told The Hindu in an interview last year that China “must carry thorough research, what is the cause of this, and not pretend that nothing is wrong”.

Wide sympathy

In the Tibetan monastery towns of Qinghai, where the 70 Tibetans have been detained, the protests appeared to have garnered the wide sympathy of both monks and ordinary residents, as The Hindu found in a visit to the important monastery town of Tongren, or Rebkong, last year.

While the town was under heavy security — a SWAT van was stationed outside the monastery at the centre of Tongren — and Tibetans were divided on whether the protests were counterproductive by bringing fresh restrictions, most expressed sympathy and support for the monks, viewing their acts as sacrifices.

Chinese authorities have, however, appeared to increasingly take a hard-line approach to discredit the protesters, suggesting they were motivated only by personal troubles — rather than any larger cause — while carrying out the protests.

The Xinhua report on Thursday alleged that Jinpa, a Tongren monk who died in a protest in Tongren November, set himself on fire after falling in love with a woman… but later discovering that she was a prostitute. The report said, citing a police investigation, another protester, Kyihe Monkyi (26), died after setting herself on fire in November because “she had sexual relationships with several men, which led to her divorce”.

Comprehensive training

Chinese authorities have also accused monks with ties to exiled Tibetan groups in Dharamsala of inciting the protests. Police said Phagpa, a monk who allegedly “offered donations for [protesters’] families” in Tongren, had “received comprehensive training at an institute specially created for the ‘Tibetan independence’ forces of the Dalai Lama clique” when he left for India in 2005.

The monk has been detained and charged with murder, police said.