As far as world leaders go, the Dalai Lama would surely have to rank as one of the most harmless. He’s an almost universally respected advocate of peace. And while he is the head of the Tibetan Government-in-exile, he is dedicated to non-violent negotiation with China, and has accepted that the People’s Republic is going to have to play some kind of part in Tibet’s future. He is, in many respects, even more admirable than Nelson Mandela, and certainly puts Bono to shame. So, when he visits Australia, why on earth would any of our leaders decline to meet with him?
Well, because they don’t want to upset China, of course. Which is easy to do on matters involving Tibet and Taiwan. Dealing with the emerging superpower is like treading on eggshells. But please. Meeting with the Dalai Lama does not constitute agreement that China should vacate Tibet. Anyone with half an understanding of the situation, and even the Dalai Lama himself, recognises that just isn’t going to happen. But meeting the guy, and treating him with the respect due to a major world figure, should be uncontroversial. Just as we pay formal respect to so many of China’s “rights”, like the one country, two systems approach to Hong Kong and even, to a degree, to Taiwan, China should respect that Australian leaders have the right to canvass a plurality of views without threatening the relationship. They may not like it, and that’s fine, but they do have to lump it.
I mean, this is not a deeply controversial guy. Or at least, he shouldn’t be. The theme of His Holiness’ tour is “Open your arms to kindness”. He isn’t exactly fomenting revolution.
Kevin Rudd’s actions in refusing to meet his this time after slamming Alexander Downer last time are deeply unimpressive. I know that Rudd is obsessed with looking prime ministerial ahead of the poll, but sometimes principles are important. The Opposition Leader would earn more respect from voters for sticking to his guns on issues like whether it’s appropriate to meet a heroic symbol of human rights figure than he does by flapping around, desperately trying to read the political landscape and then reacting to whatever the polls are telling him. He shouldn’t need an opinion poll to tell him that his position in 2002 was right.
Not that John Howard’s any better. He said he was “looking at his diary” (in other words, adopting a holding pattern) and then attacked Rudd for being hypocritical. Which was, of course, correct – but since the Prime Minister refused to meet him last time, he wasn’t exactly in a position to criticise. The PM then announced he’d meet him, creating an embarrassing Rudd backflip. But Howard’s stated willingness to meet His Holiness looks very much like an opportunity for political pointscoring. Especially as the Senate President Paul Calvert declined to have an official reception, citing “international sensitivities”.
Bollocks to international sensitivities. I don’t want to get mired b a detailed discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Tibetan situation, and it’s worth noting that centuries-old theocratic rule by Buddhist monks isn’t necessarily the ideal system of governance in the 21st century, either. But there is no doubt that Tibet’s unique culture is threatened by the influx of Han Chinese, and politicial interference (as most clearly seen in the sad story of the Panchen Lama), and that Chinese annexation has made the Tibetan people suffer. The least our leaders can do is meet with the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who represents them.
Which it seems they now will. So all’s well that ends well – for the Dalai Lama’s visit, if not for Tibet itself. And although the political dithering has been embarrassing, it’s a lot less embarrassing an outcome than cancelling his visit entirely to appease China, as recently occurred in Belgium.
Many countries have human rights issues. As the Zimbabwean government aptly pointed out in response to the cancellation of the cricket tour, our own record with respect to the Aborigines is far from flawless. But even broadly friendly governments like China’s don’t get to enjoy carte blanche when it comes to human rights – and nor should we. I’m just glad that the election race is so close that public opinion has forced both leaders into doing the right thing.