DHARMSALA, India -- The Dalai Lama fasted and led prayers Wednesday to honor nine Tibetans who set themselves on fire in protest against Chinese rule, while Beijing criticized the Tibetan spiritual leader's support as inciting "terrorism in disguise."
The 90-minute-long service at the Dalai Lama's Tsuglakhang Temple, in the northern Indian town where he lives in exile, focused on the monks, former monks and a nun who have self-immolated since March in a restive Tibetan area of western China that has been under martial law-type police controls.
Aged in their late teens and twenties, at least five died of their injuries, while the condition of the other four is not known.
At the service, the Dalai Lama led rhythmic prayers for the dead and suffering as Tibetans tended butter lamps. The newly elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, urged China to stop its tight controls on religion in Tibet and called on the United Nations to send fact-finding teams to the Himalayan region.
"We would like to appeal to the Chinese government to immediately stop its repressive policies in Tibet, and to resolve the issue of Tibet through peaceful means," Sangay said.
The prayers in Dharmsala were one of several services held in honor of the Tibetans. Taiwan had them too. In New Delhi, Tibetans protested after a prayer service. Elsewhere, Tibetans and supporters posted messages on Twitter promising to fast for the day. The Dalai Lama's daylong fast was his first since 2008 when Tibetans across western China staged protests in the largest rebellion against Chinese rule in nearly a half-century.
The commemorations underscored how the immolations served to draw attention to the situation in Aba, a Tibetan community which has been a flashpoint for Tibetan unrest. Chinese troops fired on protesting Tibetans in 2008. Since then the area has resembled an armed encampment with riot squads, checkpoints and purges of monasteries – measures the Tibetans who set themselves on fire were protesting.
In Beijing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry condemned the immolations anew Wednesday but directed special criticism at the Dalai Lama and the prayer services, saying that such support would be an incitement akin to terrorism.
"In the wake of the incidents, overseas Tibet independence forces and the Dalai Lama group did not criticize the cases but on the contrary glorified such cases and incited more people to follow suit," the spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said at a daily news briefing. "As we know, such splittist activity at the cost of human life is violence and terrorism in disguise."
The lashing out at exiled Tibetans was typical for the Chinese government, which accuses the Dalai Lama of encouraging separatism but rarely acknowledges how its policies may be contributing to unrest.
"Anything they don't like in Tibet is somehow stirred up by the Dalai Lama, and in a sense they seem to not want to take any responsibility for what appear to be spontaneous expressions of deep concern by these young people," said Michael Davis, a law professor at Hong Kong University who writes about Tibet.
Human Rights Watch has said that tightened security has led to a six-fold increase in spending on police, prisons and other parts of the public security apparatus in Aba has risen six-fold since 2002.
In attempts to rein in a Buddhist clergy seen as supportive of Tibetan independence, Beijing has put limits on the numbers of monks and nuns and forced clerics to denounce the Dalai Lama. The attack on religion, a central feature of Tibetan life, makes Tibetans more uneasy at a time that members of the Han Chinese majority are migrating to the region in greater numbers.
Besides the Dalai Lama, many other senior Tibetan clerics fled Chinese rule, establishing monasteries and schools in exile that retain links to the communities they once presided over. Also attending Wednesday's prayer services was Kirti Rinpoche, the exiled head of the Kirti monastery, which has been at the center of troubles in Aba.
In recent days, he has given implied approval of the immolations, saying that sacrificing one's life to defend one's Buddhist beliefs is not considered violent.
"Throughout your successive rebirths, never relax your vigilance in upholding the truth of the Buddha's excellent teaching for a single moment, even at the cost of your own life," Kirti Rinpoche said, citing a Buddhist master, in remarks released by the International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based lobbying group.
Simmering troubles at Kirti monastery boiled anew in March when a 21-year-old monk, Phuntsog, set himself on fire on a main street. Authorities imposed a lock-down and launched new indoctrination campaigns on the monastery, causing large numbers of monks to leave, some on their own and others forcibly, according to accounts by exiled Tibetans and support groups.
An anonymous letter from an exiled Tibetan from Aba, also known as Ngaba, and released by the International Campaign said that more than 100 monks and other locals have disappeared and that the immolations were a response to the repressive conditions.
"In short, the occurrence of suicide as protest in Ngaba is because many people there cannot see how to go on living," the letter said. "To have to relinquish our ethnic-national identity and culture is to relinquish the point of living for Tibetans, so the present repressive and punitive policies are literally tearing out the hearts of the Ngaba people."
___Associated Press writers Gillian Wong and Alexa Olesen in Beijing contributed to this report.