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US backs call by Dalai Lama to visit China

March 14, 2006

Guy Dinmore in Financial Times (March 14 2006)

The Bush administration on Tuesday backed a call by the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual Tibetan leader, to be allowed to make a pilgrimage to religious sites in China as part of a process of reconciliation between Beijing and the Tibetan community.

Last week, on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Tibetan rule which resulted in the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile, the 70-year-old leader publicly expressed his wish to visit historic Buddhist sites and “see for myself the changes and developments in the People’s Republic of China”.

This wish was reiterated on Monday by Tashi Wangdi, the Dalai Lama’s representative to the US, during a roundtable in Congress held by the joint Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which monitors human rights.

A State Department official said the US would welcome a visit to China by the Dalai Lama and urged China to engage in “substantial” discussions with the exiled Tibetan leadership.

The Dalai Lama’s initiative comes at a sensitive moment in US-China relations as the Bush administration prepares for a visit by Hu Jintao, China’s president, next month. A White House spokesman declined to comment on whether President George W. Bush would raise the issue. Mr Hu’s visit had not yet been formally announced, he said.

The State Department’s annual report on human rights out last week accused the Chinese authorities of serious abuses in Tibet, including torture, arbitrary arrest and detention without trial, repression of religious freedom and restrictions on free movement.

Mr Wangdi called on Tibetans in the US to “show restraint” in their planned protests against Mr Hu.

Mr Bush hosted the Dalai Lama in the White House in November, two weeks before his own state visit to Beijing where he told reporters he had urged the Chinese leadership to invite the spiritual leader.

Updating Congress on the five rounds of talks held between the Dalai Lama’s representatives and Beijing since 2002, Mr Wangdi said some progress was made but called the talks “frustratingly slow and basically one-sided”.

“I have only one demand: self-rule and genuine autonomy for all Tibetans,” the Dalai Lama said last week. He repeated that he did not seek Tibet’s separation from China but made clear that he was also speaking for the rights of Tibetans who live in Chinese provinces outside what is the present-day border of Tibet.

The Dalai Lama has not returned to his homeland since 1959. His supporters hope that a pilgrimage to China would eventually be followed by a visit to Tibet itself.

China remains mistrustful. Qiangba Punco, chairman of Tibet’s regional government, on Tuesday accused the Dalai Lama of changing his tactics but not his “Tibet independence stance and his efforts to split the motherland”.

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