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Dalai Lama: Blackballed from Thailand

February 13, 2010

The Dalai Lama can barely get into the White House. Forget SE Asia.
By Patrick Winn
GlobalPost
February 12, 2010

BANGKOK, Thailand -- In the age of growing
Chinese influence, there’s a simple measure of a
country’s willingness to test China’s wrath. Will
they stamp the Dalai Lama’s passport?

Add Thailand to the shrinking list of nations that won’t.

China is succeeding in its mission to globally
ostracize the Tibetan monk, likely the world’s
best-known Buddhist and the face of Tibet’s
resistance to Chinese rule. And despite Southeast
Asia’s entrenched Buddhism, China’s diplomatic
shadow has now blacked out the entire region for the Dalai Lama.

President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet the
74-year-old monk on Feb. 18 at the White House,
only after dodging a proposed sit-down last fall.
South Africa, fearing Chinese backlash, banned
the Dalai Lama in advance of the 2010 World Cup.
In the few Asian countries that still allow his
entry, officials generally dodge photo-ops and
sit-downs with the spiritual leader, described by
China’s communist party as a “jackal in monk’s robes.”

The Dalai Lama’s popularity in America -- where
he’s revered among conservative circles,
left-leaning lawmakers and the Beastie Boys alike
— is nearly matched in Thailand.

However, as in much of the world, the Dalai
Lama’s office says that Thailand has been quietly
turning down the celebrity monk’s visa requests.

Why would the Dalai Lama want to come to Thailand?

He’s routinely invited by various Thai
institutions, said Tenzin Taklha, joint secretary
of the India-based Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

An estimated 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist,
making Thailand perhaps the world’s most Buddhist
nation. Though the Dalai Lama practices Tibetan
Buddhism — a more mystical branch compared to
Thailand’s conservative Theravada Buddhism — he
is still highly regarded among Thais.

Thailand is also the base for one of the Dalai
Lama’s pet causes, democracy in
military-dominated Burma and the release of
imprisoned Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu
Kyi. Her supporters are rallying support in
advance of Burma’s 2010 elections and her possible release.

"His Holiness the Dalai Lama last visited
Thailand in 1993 when a group of Nobel Peace
laureates held a solidarity meeting for fellow
Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi,” Tenzin Taklha
said. “Since then, His Holiness has not been able
to visit Thailand because of the refusal of the
necessary visa from the Thai government, for reasons known to them.”

Why won't Thailand allow him to enter?

A visit would infuriate China, one of Thailand’s
largest trading partners, and likely poison trade and diplomatic relations.

The Dalai Lama isn’t explicitly barred through
policy, said Chavanond Intarakomalyasut,
secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. "Of
course, we would consider it case by case," he
said. "But, generally, we don’t allow anyone to
use Thailand as a base country to do any
political activities or instigate violence in other countries."

The Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, has
indirectly acknowledged that a Dalai Lama invite
would be an unwarranted insult to China.

Last year, he drew an oddly flattering parallel
between the Dalai Lama and the fugitive
billionaire and ex-Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, who is sought for arrest by the Thai
government. Thaksin is currently hopping the
globe while organizing a movement to oust the ruling party.

Other countries shouldn’t shelter Thaksin, Kasit
said, just as Thailand shouldn’t allow the Dalai
Lama to criticize China from Thai soil.

Are there any Asian countries the Dalai Lama can still visit?

A few. The Dalai Lama’s office is based in India,
which borders Tibet and openly resents Chinese
encroachment into its backyard. He is sometimes
allowed to speak in Japan, though officials
typically keep their distance. He is also
occasionally granted access to Taiwan, China’s
bitter enemy, as well as Australia and New Zealand.

But a review of the Dalai Lama’s travel schedule
through the last two decades shows only two
Southeast Asia visits: the 1993 Thailand visit and a 1992 trip to Indonesia.

The region is now too beholden to Chinese trade
and aid to risk a Dalai Lama invite, said Kevin
Hewison, director of the Carolina Asia Center at
the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"The U.S. being tied up in the Middle East left a
void that China has intentionally filled,"
Hewison said. "China’s trade, investment and aid
in Southeast Asia has made it the most important player in the region now."

These relationships are mostly business-driven
and require few diplomatic concessions. "But
there are some things you can’t do," he said.
"You can’t support Taiwan. And you can’t push
independence for Tibet. It’s self-censorship."
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