Who’s Afraid of the Dalai Lama?

The Dalai Lama on Thursday said his current visit to Italy was not meant to cause embarrassment, as China cautioned Rome against meeting with Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader. The 72-year-old, who arrived in Milan on Wednesday for a ten-day stay, said he had no desire to create diplomatic difficulties for Italian politicians. ”My visit is not a political one,” he told reporters. ”I don’t want to make problems for the state and authorities of the countries I visit.

”I am here simply as a foreign visitor,” he added. The Dalai Lama’s trip has been greeted with reticence among political figures here.

An expected meeting with Pope Benedict XVI failed to materialize, Premier Romano Prodi will be abroad when the Dalai Lama is in Rome, and public talks with Milan Mayor Letizia Moratti, a former minister, fell through at the last minute.

The lukewarm official welcome is largely the result of Chinese hostility to the Dalai Lama’s visit, creating diplomatic difficulties for both Rome and the Vatican. Beijing sees the Dalai Lama as a ”political plotter” who aims to split the country. He does not recognise Chinese rule in Tibet and in 1989 won the Nobel peace prize for his non-violent opposition to it.

On Wednesday, Beijing issued a thinly veiled warning to Italian figures considering meeting with the Dalai Lama. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the Nobel laureate was ”not just a religious figure but a political one, who is involved in activity intended to break up China”. He expressed the hope that ”all countries are aware of the Dalai Lama’s secessionist activities and provide no assistance to secessionist forces”. Chinese authorities have reacted angrily to a recent wave of high-level visits on the part of the Dalai Lama. Beijing called off a series of bilateral talks after German Chancellor Angela Merkel met with the Tibetan leader, while an American aircraft carrier was refused permission to dock in Hong Kong following his meeting with US President George W. Bush. The Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since 1959 after fleeing Tibet in the wake of a failed revolt against Chinese rule, abandoned former demands for full independence for Tibetans in the 1970s.

He now calls for a ”one country, two systems” formula, which would preserve Tibet’s culture and spirituality. Very dangerous, do you agree?

He reiterated this position on Thursday, recalling that the Chinese constitution allows some autonomy for ethnic minorities. ”We are therefore asking for a considerable measure of autonomy,” the Dalai Lama explained. ”We are asking the Chinese authorities to put into practice what is contained in their own constitution”. The Dalai Lama is spending another three days in Milan, where he will celebrate the anniversary of his Nobel peace prize along with other laureates, before travelling to the northeast city of Udine for two days, and then down to Rome.

During the Nobel festivities he will rub shoulders with Mayor Moratti, and the following day, meet with Lombardy Governor Roberto Formigoni. He will also talk to Italian Foreign Undersecretary Gianni Vernetti while in Milan, ”although this is not an institutional governmental meeting”, a ministry spokeswoman stressed, according to the usual hypocrisy of Mr. Massimo D’Alema, who leads italian diplomacy, that usually has no problem in shaking hands with Hamas and Hezbollah leaders, that evidently considers less dangerous than the Dalai Lama. Fausto Bertinotti, the communist Speaker of the House, has spent several days mumbling on how to avoid the Dalai Lama to address the House while in the capital, deliberately ignoring a petition coming from about 250 MPs. The communists want “church and state” to stay separated, in what seems a farce. Meanwhile, prime minister Romano Prodi, who’s leading a tragicomic cabinet divided on everything under the brand name “Unione” (Union), will be in Lisbon for a European Union summit that day. What a coincidence!

Nor will the Dalai Lama meet with the pope while in Rome.

”I’m sorry not to talk with him,” the spiritual leader said on Thursday. ”I’ve met with him in the past but not this time. He doubtless has difficulties or not enough time or other commitments. I miss John Paul II”. A visit by the Dalai Lama to the Vatican could create tensions just as relations between the Holy See and China seemed to be thawing.
The pope has called for greater dialogue with the officially atheist state, making it clear he wants to eventually restore full diplomatic ties with Beijing. Ties were severed in 1951, soon after the Communist Revolution. The Dalai Lama was received by Pope Benedict in a low-profile visit to his summer residence outside Rome last year but a meeting in the Vatican would have had a much more official air.

At the end of the day, Italian government, many politicians and the pope think the Dalai Lama is dangerous. This is very sad and irritating.

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