WASHINGTON: US President Barack Obama hosted the Dalai Lama at the White House Wednesday—a now familiar ritual that took place off-camera and out of the public eye to avoid irking China.
Obama carried out what has become a political rite in Washington, spiriting the exiled Tibetan religious leader into the White House through the back door—and prompting the usual Chinese denunciations.
Since coming to office, Obama has now hosted the Dalai Lama four times. Each time, Obama has tried to limit the fallout by holding the meeting behind closed doors.
This latest confab took place in the Map Room, not the Oval Office, and the press was not invited—meaning images of the two Nobel peace laureates would not be flashed around the world.
The 80-year-old Buddhist monk did not appear to enter the White House through the usual West Wing entrance, which is the route for most—although not all—high-profile visitors.
“The personal nature of their meeting would explain why the president received the Dalai Lama in the White House residence, as opposed to the Oval Office, for example,” said White House press secretary Josh Earnest.
Even before the meeting, Beijing made its displeasure felt, warning it would “damage mutual trust and cooperation.”
“China’s foreign ministry has launched solemn representations with the US side, expressing our firm opposition to such an arrangement,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told reporters.
Lu added that the meeting would “send a wrong signal to the separatist forces seeking Tibet independence.”
Obama calls the monk, who is revered by Tibetans but portrayed by Beijing as a dangerous separatist, “a good friend.”
He made a high-profile public appearance with the Dalai Lama last year at a prayer breakfast in Washington, calling him “a powerful example of what it means to practice compassion.”
But Obama was criticized in 2010 for obliging the 80-year-old, clad in his characteristic red robes and flip flops, to leave the White House through a back door and walk past piles of snow and bags of rubbish.
‘A strong stand’
The spiritual leader—who has lived in exile in the north Indian town of Dharamsala since a failed 1959 uprising—has for decades called for more Tibetan autonomy rather than independence.
In a statement after the meeting, the White House said Obama had “encouraged meaningful and direct dialogue between the Dalai Lama and his representatives with Chinese authorities to lower tensions and resolve differences.”
Beijing maintains he is a “wolf in monk’s clothing” and vigorously lobbies—often successfully—against foreign leaders meeting him.
The White House said Obama had “emphasized his strong support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the equal protection of human rights of Tibetans in China.”
Some exiled Tibetans, however, questioned the value of such meetings.
“This will be the fourth time President Obama and His Holiness the Dalai Lama are meeting, yet there has been no significant change on the issue of Tibet,” said Tenzing Jigme, head of the Tibetan Youth Congress, which lobbies for independence rather than greater autonomy. “The situation inside Tibet is dire and requires immediate intervention and so I urge President Obama to take a strong stand and pressure the Chinese government to resolve the issue of Tibet.”
Many Tibetans consider any criticism of the Dalai Lama to be heresy, but some younger exiles argue that his long campaign of diplomacy has achieved little and call for more assertive policies.
China has ruled Tibet since the 1950s and many Tibetans say Beijing represses their Buddhist religion and culture—charges China denies.
More than 130 ethnic Tibetans have set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest at Beijing’s rule, campaign groups and overseas media have said. Most of them have died.
The Dalai Lama has described the protests as acts of desperation that he is powerless to stop.
Many observers believe China is confident that the Tibetan movement will lose much of its potency and global appeal when the charismatic Dalai Lama dies.
The Dalai Lama has also increasingly spoken of succession and has not ruled out picking his reincarnation before his death, fearing that China would instead pick its own boy whom it would use to advance its agenda.