Tibetan Prelates in US

For the first time, nearly the entire hierarchy of the Tibetan Buddhist religion is in Washington, DC to attend a Kalachakra for World Peace, the biggest Buddhist ritual open to the public and led by the Dalai Lama himself in an apparent attempt to up the pressure on the Obama government to support them.

It isn’t the Kalachakra that is drawing attention but the geopolitics revolving around the 10-day visit, which ends Saturday and which is drawing outraged comment from Beijing. It is posing problems for the Obama Administration, which is seeking to walk a narrow line between antagonizing the Chinese or ignoring the Tibetans. Accordingly, although neither President Barack Obama nor Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with the religious leader, many other officials and politicians have.

Nonetheless, the Chinese indignation over who can and can’t visit the United States is a bit overdone. Last week China hosted Omar Al-Bashir, the Sudanese president who is wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of genocide in the Darfur conflict. China regularly hosts Kim Jong-Il, the Korean dictator who has largely wrecked his shambolic country, as well as a gang of Burmese thugs. A long list of African Big Men and various satraps and crooks have traipsed off to Beijing over the objections of human rights advocates, with the Chinese in effect telling them to mind their own business.

The Washington DC event began on July 6, the Buddhist leader’s 76th birthday. It has drawn more than 10,000 people to a downtown arena where the Tibetans in America exile group, other Buddhists and their American supporters celebrated the Nobel laureate’s birthday while practitioners meditate and pray for world peace

Maria Otero, the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs, who also acts as the special coordinator for Tibetan issues, met the Dalai Lama upon his arrival and later discussed subjects related to Tibet. Her meeting was the US’s initial sign of support. House Speaker John Boehner , the third-highest-ranking US official, also met with the Dalai Lama, as did with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a longtime critic of China on human rights. “Here in Congress, our commitment to the Tibetan people has always … brought the two parties together, and I expect it will continue to do so, no matter how long it takes,” Boehner said.

Lobsang Sangay, the exile community’s new Kalon Tripa, or Tibetan prime minister in exile, also is accompanying the Dalai Lama. Sangay reportedly is there to make political contacts, taking over from the spiritual leader, who has retired from his political career to allow the younger generation to build contacts and cooperation for future support.

Tibet’s third-highest Lama, Karmapa Ogden Trinley Dorjee, who also lives in Dharamsala, the hill station in India where the exile community is based, was also allowed to tour the United States for the Kalachakra event, his second visit overseas. In the past the Indian government has denied his requests to travel outside India because of domestic controversies surrounding him. The sudden decision to allow the 26-year-old Karmapa to visit the US signals a significant shift by the Indian government, which closely monitors his movement. The Karmapa is expected by many to be the spiritual successor to the Dalai Lama and the future leader of Tibetan Buddhism a.

“It is the first time the entire exile leadership has gathered in America, something remarkable with the support of the United States. A policy change could initiate a process of solution to our Tibet issue,” said the exiled artist Tenzin Norbu.

China was quick to condemn the formal meeting with Maria Otero. “We are firmly against the Dalai Lama engaging in activities aimed at splitting the motherland through overseas visits,” foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told the media. “We are firmly opposed to foreign governments or any political figures supporting and encouraging such activities. We hope the US will strictly abide by its commitments on the Tibet religious issue, proceed from the overall interests of bilateral relations and cautiously and properly handle the relevant issue,” Hong said.

Warnings from the Communist regime are not deterring US lawmakers, who have been rallying behind the Dalai Lama in trying to put pressure on Beijing and who have been pressing for a possible meeting with the president. The White House is tightlipped on any such international meeting, given the pressure from the Asian giant.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have met the Tibetan spiritual leader. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pressed Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama. “Beijing is implementing new policies to wipe out the Tibetan culture, such as facilitating the immigration of Han Chinese into Tibet and forcing Tibetan herders to leave the plateau and resettle in concrete block apartments," said Ros-Lehtinen, a longstanding critic of China. “It must be clear that the US sides with the victims in Tibet, not the perpetrators in Beijing. President Obama has an opportunity to make a strong statement about what we stand for by meeting with the Dalai Lama.”

The United States is thus playing careful diplomacy. During the Dalai Lama’s last visit in 2009, China took strong exception to Obama’s meeting with the Tibetan leader, which caused a major disruption in bilateral ties as Beijing called off military contacts, partly on this issue as well as US arms sales to Taiwan.

Extensive economic strength and a massive military buildup have already made China a world power. Washington, under pressure from Beijing, is taking no chances to damage Sino-US relations. This time as the Dalai Lama visits, United States top military officer Adm. Mike Mullen called China a World power. Mullen, in his address, called for an "enduring effort" to build the U.S.-China relationship, saying the two sides must "work from a posture of mutual respect" and think "locally and globally.”

“Instead of hosting indicted war criminals such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir in the Great Hall, Beijing's leadership has a golden opportunity to prove its sincerity, garner goodwill and improve the image of China if it would, as the Dalai Lama devolved his political authority, devolve its power to Tibetans to resolve the issue of Tibet,” Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister elect wrote in an op-ed column in the Washington Post.

Given the voices in support of the Dalai Lama in the United States, many still believe domestic pressure could impel President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to do a side door meeting. But Washington knows Beijing is watching its moves.

(Saransh Sehgal is a writer based in Dharamsala, India.)