WASHINGTON (RNS) President Obama met with the Dalai Lama on Thursday (Feb. 18), four months after critics questioned his commitment to human rights when Obama declined a one-on-one meeting with the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism. Religious freedom advocates hailed the meeting, however late, but remained cautious about whether the private talk will result in substantive outcomes, either on Tibet or larger religious-freedom issues.
“It’s the right thing to do,” said Thomas Farr, the former director of the State Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom, who blasted Obama last October for bypassing the Dalai Lama because of an upcoming summit in Beijing. “Even if you do the right thing late, it’s important that you do it and that he’s withstanding the inevitable complaints of the Chinese.”
The Chinese government, which has little patience for the Dalai Lama’s globe-trotting diplomacy, had urged Obama not to meet with the Dalai Lama, whom it accuses of orchestrating “anti-China splitting activities.”
The Dalai Lama has met with every U.S. president since George H.W. Bush. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, 74, advocates for autonomy for Tibetans, but not total independence from China.
“He said to me recently in his home in India he is very much looking forward to becoming a … citizen of the People’s Republic of China,” said Alexander Norman, author of the new book “Secret Lives of the Dalai Lama” and a collaborator on books written by the Dalai Lama.
“He’s seeking meaningful autonomy rather than any kind of independence. Independence is not on the agenda, as far as he’s concerned.”
In a statement issued after the meeting, the White House seemed to distance itself even from the push for autonomy, much less any sort of formal independence for Tibet.
“The president stated his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity,” the statement said, “and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People’s Republic of China.”
The two Nobel Peace Prize winners discussed nonviolence and ongoing dialogue with Beijing, but the statement signaled that Obama’s involvement can’t alienate Beijing. Both men agreed on “the importance of a positive and cooperative relationship between the United States and China,” the statement said.
After castigating Obama for not meeting with the Dalai Lama last year, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., called Thursday’s meeting “a positive.” Wolf now hopes the talks will prompt stronger U.S. diplomacy on religious freedom in Tibet and beyond.
“I really haven’t seen a strong approach to human rights and religious freedom yet by the administration,” said Wolf, co-chair of a bipartisan Human Rights Commission on Capitol Hill.
“`Now it’s just the first year so maybe … this meeting with the Dalai Lama will be a turning of a page.”
Leonard Leo, chairman of the independent U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said “it’s about time” for a Dalai Lama-Obama meeting since every president in the last 20 years has used such meetings to signal “concern respecting China’s failure to respect freedom of religion and other basic human rights.”
Even so, the meeting also renewed concerns by Farr, Wolf and others about the administration’s broader human rights agenda. Both men are critical that Obama has not named an ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, even as czars and special envoys—most recently one to the Organization of the Islamic Conference—have been appointed.
White House spokesman Shin Inouye, asked to comment on the broader criticisms about religious freedom, responded with a statement, saying Obama “has been clear in his commitment” on the issue. “This administration continues to support efforts to ensure that all are able to choose and live their faith.”
Advocates for Tibet, especially, hope the meeting will spark a renewed interest in their cause, or at least keep it on the White House’s radar screen.
“The Tibetan people have demonstrated to the world their increasing frustration with the situation in Tibet, and many are suffering for doing so,” said Mary Beth Markey, vice president for international advocacy at the International Campaign for Tibet.
Added Norman: “I think more than anything, (the Dalai Lama)’s hoping that Tibet will not be forgotten. I think this is a great fear of the Dalai Lama, that Tibet will simply be forgotten in the ascension of China to world superpower status.”