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Swiss Sidestep Dalai Lama

July 20, 2009

17 July 2009

By swissinfo staff in Beijing and Bern for swissinfo

Instead the speaker of the House of Representatives, Chiara
Simoneschi-Cortesi, has been asked to welcome the Tibetan spiritual
leader, the foreign ministry explained.

How much the decision reflects pressure from China is not certain.
Switzerland is home to the biggest Tibetan community in Europe and the
spiritual leader arrives in Lausanne on August 4 where he expected to
give an address to thousands of people.

It is still possible that cabinet ministers will meet the 74-year-old
Nobel Peace Prize winner on an informal basis, government officials said.

The Swiss embassy in Beijing has declined to comment on the move, saying
it was awaiting a possible formal response from the Chinese.

It was the same story at the Swiss Chinese Chamber of Commerce in
Beijing, whose president Peter Trösch confirmed having discussed the
Dalai Lama's visit with the embassy but was unable to say whether there
had been any pressure from the Chinese over the trip.

Forcing the Swiss hand

But there are voices ? although strictly anonymous ? who argue that
Beijing has been leaning on Switzerland.

One source in the business world is quoted as saying it would be a "real
pity" if an official meeting between Switzerland and the Dalai Lama
"compromised" work underway for a free trade agreement.

It would seem that the pressure has been strong enough for the cabinet
not to meet the spiritual leader. In a way, its arm has been twisted.

"We invited the cabinet ministers but none responded positively to our
invitation," said Jon Schmidt, of the committee organising the Dalai
Lama's visit to Lausanne.

He explained that a meeting was planned with Pascal Broulis, chairman of
the Vaud cantonal government, parliamentarian Philippe Leuba, and other
senior Vaud cantonal officials.

And why no personal welcome from the Swiss foreign minister?

"It's not a good time, it's a difficult period, it's impossible for me,
for my colleagues too. We have therefore sought a solution that
corresponds to the position and standing of the Dalai Lama," Foreign
Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey told French-language Swiss radio.

She noted that negotiations for a free trade agreement did not come into
the discussions.

A foreign ministry spokesman added that Switzerland was not under any
pressure from China. "Switzerland is in constant dialogue with the
authorities of that country," said Erik Neumann.

"Appalling"

But the official version has sparked controversy. The Swiss-Tibetan
Friendship Association said it was "shocked and saddened" to learn that
there would not be an official meeting with a cabinet minister.

And the Switzerland-Tibet parliamentary interest group in Bern wrote to
the cabinet calling for it to meet the Dalai Lama. Its vice-president,
Swiss People's Party parliamentarian Oskar Freysinger, was frank in his
disapproval: "It's appalling. The Swiss government is only showing it
has no backbone."

"It only knows how to do one thing: bow down before the world's powers
and apologise for its existence. That is not the Switzerland I am
fighting for. Nobody dares stand up to this Chinese communist
dictatorial system because there are economic interests at stake and it
is easier to sell your soul to the devil than to resist."

He added: "If the point is to be true to ourselves, to live with our
heads held high and to fight for what is right, then this meeting should
take place. However, if it is only about showing submission in order to
gain some juicy contracts, then no."

"For my part, I will always support the first option. Otherwise, there
is no reason for the sovereign nation that is Switzerland to exist."

But it must also be remembered that a meeting with the speaker of the
House of Representatives is not to be sniffed at.

The Dalai Lama also regularly visits Switzerland for personal reasons.
He may have met four cabinet ministers in recent years, but there are
also occasions when he does not meet them. Calmy-Rey stresses that he
has never received an official government welcome and he is usually met
by the culture minister. In the future, "we intend to continue along
these lines", she said.

Alain Arnaud, Beijing, in collaboration with Michel Walter, Bern,
www.swissinfo.ch (translated from French by Jessica Dacey)
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
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