Dalai Lama visa issue sinks Nobel laureates' summit. Where can he travel?

A Nobel summit in South Africa is canceled after laureates protest denying the Dalai Lama a visa. While his travel schedule is full, appeasing China makes the arrangements more delicate.

Ashwini Bhatia/AP
Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama speaks to a crowd during an event marking 25 years since the leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in Dharmsala, India, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014.

Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille had hoped to meet the Dalai Lama along with other Nobel laureates at a special summit in her city.

Cape Town, she told the Monitor earlier this year, is a “freedom” city. Her office sports a giant wall photo of Nelson Mandela making his first “freedom speech” in Cape Town after being released. Another wall shows dignitaries – Archbishop Desmond Tutu, President Mandela, and the Obamas – given honorary keys to the “Freedom of the City.”

But then this month South Africa, under pressure from China, refused – for the third time – to give a visa to the Dalai Lama. And on Thursday, Cape Town canceled the Fourteenth World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates after many of the Nobel laureates said they would boycott the meeting.

Ms. de Lille called the South African government position “disingenuous.” Archbishop Tutu, a friend of the Dalai Lama and of the late Mr. Mandela, expressed anger at Mandela’s former “comrades” in the South African capital who buckled under China’s pressure, calling them “spineless.”

Yet while the impression in recent years is that fewer and fewer nations are willing to host the Dalai Lama under pressure from China, the actual travel schedule of the exiled Tibetan leader says otherwise.

In the past two years the Dalai Lama has visited Japan, New Zealand, North America, and nearly a dozen European states – from Italy and the United Kingdom to Latvia and Switzerland. Next month he visits Canada and the United States, starting in Vancouver and traveling for an interfaith conference in Birmingham, Ala.

He has made nine foreign visits already this year, and 12 each of the previous two years. The theme of his current year’s tour is entitled “One world, one vision, one people.”

He has traveled all over India in 2014, though a visit to Delhi in mid-September got shifted so he would not be in the Indian capital at the same time as Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Along with South Africa, this year Russia has refused the Dalai Lama a transit visa, and Mongolia has denied him entry.

What’s really changed, say sources in Tibetan exile NGOs, is that visits require more duress and diplomatic effort. China continues to push governments that the spiritual leader not be given a visa, and that if he is, that he meet no officials and that meetings take place in venues not tied to the state.

Ahead of a visit to Norway in May, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said she would not meet the Dalai Lama since “We haven’t been able to work with China on international issues for four years,” dating to the Nobel award given to Chinese pro-civil society activist and Charter ’08 author Liu Xiaobo, who remains in prison in China. (The prime minister’s decision brought several days of protest in Oslo.)

British Prime Minister David Cameron and his predecessors now no longer meet the Dalai Lama at 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s official residence. Rather, recent venues include St. Paul’s Cathedral.

White House visits in the past two administrations have often taken place in rooms other than the Oval Office. In February, President Obama met with the Dalai Lama in the White House map room – despite official threats by Beijing that such a meeting would “seriously damage” ties with China.

Orville Schell, writer and director of the Asia Society’s US-China program, says the White House should continue to host the spiritual leader, “since the last time I checked, [the US] is a relatively free country. And just as China doesn’t want us interfering in their internal affairs, we don’t want them interfering in ours. We should meet with whomever we want.”

Last year the Dalai Lama – who trekked over the Himalayas in 1959 to escape the China of Mao Zedong – relinquished his role or position as the political leader of Tibet in exile. He now travels abroad only as a “religious leader.” That is expected, say Tibetan exile sources, to “ease” his travel arrangements.

The Dalai Lama has long advocated a “loving approach” among Tibetans to China, which has of late put him at odds with younger Tibetans. Yet he continues to argue on his tours of the world this way:

Thinking in terms of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is therefore very unhelpful. I consider myself to be just one human being among 7 billion others. If I think of myself as different from others or as something special it creates a barrier between us. We all want to lead happy lives, to gather friends around us, and friendship is based on trust, honesty, and openness. 

Rumors have circulated in recent weeks that Beijing was considering a visit by the Dalai Lama. It is something he has long sought, and he gave an interview saying he is open to the idea. Yet such visits have been rumored for decades. 

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