BEIJING -- Chinese police officers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Tibetans who were celebrating the birthday of the Dalai Lama in a volatile area of Sichuan Province, injuring nine people, two of them critically, rights advocates reported this week. The shootings took place on Saturday, but government restrictions on communications in the region prevented the news from immediately reaching outsiders.
The violence occurred as more than 500 people gathered for a picnic on the slopes of a mountain in the town of Tawu, or Daofu in Chinese, that is considered sacred by local residents.
According to the International Campaign for Tibet, Radio Free Asia and other groups, the crowd included Buddhist monks and nuns from nearby monasteries but also scores of laypeople who were celebrating the 78th birthday of the Dalai Lama, an event that has traditionally been banned by the authorities. Despite the prohibition on such gatherings, rights advocates say the police often look the other way as celebrants burn incense or hang prayer flags to mark the occasion.
The weekend violence, coupled with recent statements by senior Chinese officials, suggests that Beijing has no intention of loosening the restrictions in Tibetan areas that many rights advocates say are inciting a wave of self-immolations. On Tuesday, China's top official in charge of ethnic minorities vowed to continue the Communist Party's emphasis on social stability, which includes demonizing the Dalai Lama.
The statement, published by the official Xinhua news agency, seemed aimed at quashing recent speculation among some Tibetan exiles that the authorities were preparing to experiment with a more relaxed approach to governance in the region, including allowing the open display of the exiled Tibetan leader's photograph.
"Only when the Dalai Lama publicly announces that Tibet is an inalienable part of China since ancient time, gives up the stance of 'Tibet independence' and stops his secessionist activities can his relations with the C.P.C. Central Committee possibly be improved," Xinhua quoted the official, Yu Zhengsheng, as saying.
The Dalai Lama does not advocate an independent Tibet, but has been seeking what he describes as meaningful autonomy for China's 5.4 million Tibetans.
The violence in Tawu began after dozens of police officers arrived at the scene of the birthday celebration and ordered participants to leave. After religious leaders tried to reason with the officers, witnesses said, there was a brief standoff that quickly escalated. "They smashed doors and windows of our vehicles and started beating Tibetans gathered in the area and dispersed the Tibetans and started shooting at the crowd," one local resident told Radio Free Asia.
Exile groups say the two of the most critically injured are monks from the Nyitso Monastery in Tawu. The men were taken to a hospital in Chengdu, the provincial capital, with gunshot wounds to the head. One of them, Ugyen Tashi, may have been shot as many as eight times, according to the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.
At least 20 people remain in police custody in Tawu, according to the International Campaign for Tibet.
Reached by phone on Tuesday, a government official in Ganzi Prefecture, which includes Tawu, declined to comment. Calls to the local public security bureau went unanswered.
The prefecture, known in Tibetan as Kardze, is at the heart of a continuing protest campaign against Chinese rule that since 2008 has included at least 120 self-immolations. Seven have taken place in Kardze, whose residents are known for their strong Tibetan identity and a fierce devotion to the Dalai Lama. Several times in recent years, the police have used lethal force to break up what they deemed to be illegal gatherings. In January 2012, as many as three people were killed and at least 31 injured when the police opened fire on a protest in the town of Draggo, which is called Luhuo in Chinese.
Tensions have been particularly high in Tawu, the scene of five self-immolations, including that of a Buddhist nun who killed herself last month during a religious debate festival that drew 3,000 monks from across the region. Since then, exile groups say, security has been especially tight in and around the Nyatso Monastery, where the 10-day event took place.
Mandie McKeown, a coordinator for the International Campaign for Tibet, said the violence on Saturday was bound to fuel more opposition to Chinese rule. "Given how incredibly volatile things are, using lethal force doesn't accomplish anything," she said in an interview. "It just aggravates the complaints of Tibetans and exacerbates the situation."
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.