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Obama-Dalai Lama meeting will not change anything for Tibet

By Claude Arpi
February 19, 2010 15:06 IST
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When a friend asked me what I thought of the long-awaited meeting between the Dalai Lama and United States President Barack Obama, I immediately replied, "It is good for Obama's karma."

And when the friend asked, "What about the Tibetans," I just sighed.

Most of the media covering the 'historic' event emphasised the courage of the US president, who dared to 'defy' Chinese anger (and diktats) to meet the Tibetan leader.

'Ignoring strong objections by China, United States President Barack Obama met exiled Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama,' the media reported.

Well, the fact is that meeting the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is the least the new Nobel Peace Prize winner could do. He could not once again ignore the Tibetan leader after his recent attempts to 'engage' many rogue States and individuals.

Obama did finally meet the Dalai Lama, away from the cameras and the press, discreetly in the Map Room of the White House, where presidents usually stage private meetings. The Obama administration termed the encounter as a 'private call'. There was, of course, no question of a meeting taking place in the more official Oval Office, where presidents receive 'world leaders' only.

Before the event, Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy, had stated, "His Holiness will be asking the president to help find a solution in resolving the Tibet issue that would be mutually beneficial to the Tibetan and Chinese people."

And as usual, the Chinese government had requested Washington to cancel the meeting that 'would damage Sino-US relations'. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu had said, "China resolutely opposes the visit by the Dalai Lama to the United States, and resolutely opposes US leaders having contact with the Dalai Lama."

What flabbergasts me is that today, Beijing believes that if one does not do what it wants (or dictates), it is considered as 'defiance', even when it comes from the lone superpower on the planet.

The meeting was certainly good for President Obama's image, at a time when his popularity is tumbling fast (mainly due to domestic policies and his position in Afghanistan). A recent survey pointed that about 52 per cent Americans believe that US President Barack Obama does not deserve a second term in office, while only 44 per cent of registered voters would like to see Obama re-elected.

Half of the public disapproves of his job in the White House. CNN polling director Keating Holland explains, "One problem Obama faces may be the perception that he is not a middle-class kind of guy."

In another CNN opinion poll, released on the eve of the meeting in the Map Room, nearly three-quarters of Americans said that Tibet should be an independent country.

The Dalai Lama is popular with 56 per cent Americans, "That puts him in the same neighbourhood as other major religious figures. Favourable ratings for the Pope, at 59 per cent, and Billy Graham, at 57 per cent, are virtually identical to the numbers for the Dalai Lama," says Holland. 

The poll also indicates that 53 per cent believe that it is more important for the United States to take a strong stand on human rights in China than to maintain good relations with Beijing.

The current feeling of the US electorate was an important factor in the decision by the Barak Obama's administration to 'brave' Beijing's ire. 

As for the query on the impact of the meeting on Tibetans, I sighed because I am not sure of the answer. In fact, I am pretty certain that it will not change anything. The Chinese leaders are today too arrogant to listen to anything coming from Washington. In fact, they resent any advice from the West.

And let us not forget that the United States is a broke country. What can a nation with such a huge debt (some 2 trillion dollars) towards China, impose on the rising dragon? What pressure can a debtor put on his creditor, except to negotiate a better exchange rate to reduce his debt?

The Tibetan issue is more complex (even for China) than some Western analysts make it out to be, and the present leadership in Beijing does not have the courage or the charisma to take the plunge and offer a 'genuine' solution to the Tibetan leader. It is pity because the Dalai Lama is perhaps the only person who could help sort out the contradictions of today's China. But we should also acknowledge that a 'genuine' solution would bring about tremendous changes inside China and perhaps the collapse of the present system under a party clique.

There is one lesson for Obama and other Western leaders: the loud noises coming from the mouth of the spokesperson of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs is more for show (though it often works); bilateral relations will continue as usual.

The Chinese leaders will keep fighting for what they perceive as their 'national interests', irrespective of foreign leaders meeting with the Dalai Lama, which does not change the fundamental position of Beijing vis-a-vis Tibet that has remained the same for the past 30 years.

For his good conscience (and the good conscience of the people of the United States), Obama will probably grant a few millions dollars to the 'most successful refugees of the world', but they will remain refugees.

Another aspect of the problem appeared in an event which took place in North-Eastern Tibet (outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region, which is the only 'Tibet' acknowledged by Beijing).

Thousands of Tibetans demonstrated in Ngaba County of Amdo Province. This was not a protest demonstration like those held in March-April 2008, to express their anger against the Chinese, but to show their joy: their leader was going to meet the most powerful man of the world.

The web site reported: 'The mournful atmosphere of the Tibetan New Year was replaced by jubilation with people cracking firecrackers in the streets and celebrating.'

A large crowd from nearby villages gathered near Ngaba Kirti monastery for a purification ritual; they burned incense and erected 'wind-horse' prayer flags. Thousands marched in the streets and shouted 'ki ki so so lha gyalo' (victory to gods) while throwing tsampa (barley flour) in the air

Apparently the Chinese security forces did not know how to react to the incense burning. The Chinese police eventually confiscated firecrackers from the Tibetans and extinguished the fires.

One can only admire these people who are ready to risk their life to show their devotion to their leader.

The Chinese leadership may not take Obama's hypothetical support very seriously; for them, the devotion of the Tibetan masses for their leader is perhaps more subversive than the US stand.

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Claude Arpi