Who could forget the story of the Tunisian fruit seller who set himself ablaze in a desperate, final protest that triggered last year's Arab Spring?

Right now, in Tibet, similarly gruesome protests are happening at an alarming rate. Since 2009, at least 54 people in Tibet have set themselves on fire to protest living conditions under China's rule and to call for a free Tibet. The latest incident occurred last week, when a 27-year-old set himself on fire inside a Buddhist monastery in China.

The protests are likely to be discussed among Minnesota Tibetans this weekend, when the highest-ranking leader of the Tibetan government in exile comes to town for a visit.

Lobsang Sangay, elected prime minister last year, is touring the United States. He is stopping in the Twin Cities on Friday and Saturday at the request of the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, a community group that also organized last year's visit by the Dalai Lama.

"The whole Tibetan community is anticipating his visit," said Kalsang Phuntsok, a TAFM board member.

An estimated 3,000 Tibetans live in Minnesota, making it the second-largest Tibetan population in the country.

Sangay is a former Harvard Law scholar. His position as prime minister has become more powerful since the Dalai Lama transferred his political duties to elected Tibetan leaders. (The Dalai Lama remains the spiritual leader for Tibetans worldwide.)

Recently, the prime minister urged Tibetans not to use self-immolation to protest, arguing that it is against the Tibetan movement's devotion to nonviolence.

But Sangay also stressed the need to call attention to the worsening conditions for Tibetans living in China that are provoking the suicides.

Sangay will speak about Tibet's current state at 6 p.m. Friday at the Tibetan Cultural Center in St. Paul. He will meet with students at the Tibetan language and culture school on Saturday and with local college students from China.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488