Obama and the Lama: Shaky prospects for the Tibetan movement

Although Barack Obama met with the The Dalai Lama, it's unlikely to have any positive effects on the status of Tibet.

Updated: February 22, 2014 11:40:28 am
US President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama in Washington. (AP) US President Barack Obama met with the Dalai Lama in Washington. (AP)

U.S. President Barack Obama met with the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, this weekend in Washington amidst protests from China. But it appears unlikely that the meeting will help reverse the international fortunes of the Tibetan movement.

Unlike his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama has not been too enthusiastic about demonstrating American warmth towards the Dalai Lama. His priority is to improve relations with China and does not want the Tibetan question complicate his effort to build a sustainable partnership with Beijing. At the same time, Obama does not want to appear abandoning the human rights issues in China and alienate a significant section of domestic elite opinion.

During his first year in office, Obama did not meet the Dalai Lama for he ruled against irritating Beijing before his scheduled visit to China at the end of 2009. Obama’s visit to Beijing, however, did not meet the White House expectations as China sought to define its own terms for the bilateral relations.

Obama did meet the Dalai Lama in 2010. But in deference to Chinese sensitivities, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people was escorted out of the back door of the White House to avoid encounters with the press.

This time around, White House decided that the meeting with the Dalai Lama would be in camera. It also put out the word that President Obama is meeting the Dalai Lama in the residential quarters of the White House and not in the Oval Office. If Obama went some distance in mollifying China, Beijing was in no mood to acknowledge the White House effort to make the meeting a private and not a political one.

Beijing denounced the meeting as a gross American interference in China’s internal affairs and undermine bilateral relations. The Obama Administration appears confident that the political damage from the meeting can be contained. The White House also reiterated that it does not support Tibetan separatism and called on Beijing to resume the dialogue with the exiled Tibetan leadership in Dharamshala.

China, however, feels no compulsion to engage in such a dialogue. Despite the Dalai Lama’s explicit rejection of secession from China, Beijing feels it is under no obligation to talk to him. Beijing appears satisfied at its successful blunting of the Dalai Lama’s profile on the international stage over the last few years.

Relentless Chinese pressure has made it more difficult for many leaders around the world to meet the Dalai Lama. The Western leaders who had warmly embraced the Dalai Lama until recently are now a bit wary of being seen with him in public.

China’s rise on the world stage is making it increasingly difficult for the Dalai Lama to mobilise international support. Since the late 1980s, the Tibetan movement has had an easy political run in the Western world. That phase, however, may be drawing to a close.  

(The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a Contributing Editor for The Indian Express)

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