The US ambassador to China has urged Beijing to re-examine policies towards Tibetans, and acknowledged he had quietly visited monasteries during a spate of self-immolation protests.
Ambassador Gary Locke, speaking from Beijing to an online forum in the United States, said he stopped at monasteries last month in the flashpoint Aba prefecture to "get an appreciation of Tibetan culture and the way of life".
Aba, an ethnically Tibetan area of Sichuan province, has been a hotbed of protests against Beijing's rule. At least 60 ethnic Tibetans, many of them monks and nuns, have set themselves alight since February 2009 in Sichuan and Tibet .
"We implore the Chinese to really meet with the representatives of the Tibetan people to address and re-examine some of the policies that have led to some of the restrictions and the violence and the self-immolations," Locke said. "We have very serious concerns about the violence, of the self-immolations, that have occurred over the last several years," he said, calling the incidents "very deplorable".
"Nobody wants that type of action, or of people having to resort to that type of action. Too many deaths," he said. Locke called for China to show respect for Tibetans' religion, culture and language.
The United States has repeatedly urged China to address Tibetan grievances, but it is very rare for foreign officials or media to visit Tibetan areas on unsupervised trips.
The Foreign Ministry yesterday rejected what it called foreign interference and repeated its claim the "Dalai group" was responsible for "instigating and masterminding" self-immolations. "At the same time I want to point out that Tibetan affairs are China's internal affairs," said spokesman Hong Lei . "We oppose any country or any person interfering in China's internal affairs in any form."
Locke, who was responding to a question as part of a "China Town Hall" with citizens in 60 cities across the US, said he visited Aba prefecture after a trip to the major cities in Sichuan, where he promoted US businesses.
Seven self-immolation protests were reported last week alone among Tibetans, many of whom accuse Beijing of suppressing their culture. Few of the Tibetans who have set themselves alight are believed to have survived.