SYDNEY - Tibet's exiled political leader Lobsang Sangay on Tuesday said a spate of self-immolations in China was one of the few ways for oppressed and desperate people to assert their freedom.
More than 30 people have set themselves on fire in Tibetan-inhabited areas of China since the start of March 2011 in protest at what they say is religious and cultural repression by the Chinese authorities.
"It means the situation is not bearable," Sangay, a 43-year-old Harvard scholar who is prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, told the Sydney Morning Herald on a visit to Australia.
"It's not just that it's a desperate act, but also a political act," he said.
"Peaceful protests, peaceful rallies are not allowed. The statements they leave behind consistently say they want freedom.
"The self-immolations are somehow an assertion of freedom - 'you can restrain my freedom but I can choose to die as I want'."
China blames spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for inciting the self-immolations in a bid to split Tibet from the rest of the nation, and insists Tibetans now have better lives due to Chinese investment.
Most of the incidents have occurred since Sangay was elected in April 2011, four months before he took office to assume political duties being relinquished by the Dalai Lama at the head of the India-based exiled government.
Asked if this showed that Tibetans feel more hopelessness as the Dalai Lama restricts his political activism, or whether it was an effort to push Sangay to take a harder line against China, he replied: "It's too early to tell."
Sangay added: "We have repeatedly asked them not to take drastic actions, including self-immolation, but they continue to do so."