WASHINGTON — The last time the Dalai Lama came to Washington, his visit triggered bloody riots back in his Tibetan homeland.
That was in September, 1987, when a group of sympathetic members of Congress here gave the Tibetan leader a welcome warm enough to raise the hopes of pro-independence forces in Tibet.
In Lhasa, Buddhist monks hurled stones at Chinese police. The cops opened fire in return. At least six people died. It was, so far as anyone in the West knows, the most serious Tibetan uprising since 1959, when the Dalai Lama and more than 100,000 followers fled Tibet for exile in India after the invasion of Chinese Communist forces.
Those 1987 riots changed the course of history in Tibet, giving a much nastier, more confrontational tone to relations between Chinese and Tibetans. After even more violent turmoil followed in 1988 and 1989, China put Tibet under martial law for more than a year.
Now, the Dalai Lama is coming back to Washington--and to what everyone expects will be an even warmer reception by top congressional leaders.
If all goes according to plan, the Dalai Lama will amble into the stately, ornate Capitol Rotunda on April 18 to be greeted by House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.). Then the Tibetan leader will speak to as many as 200 members of Congress and other dignitaries.
Whatever happens in Lhasa this time, the Dalai Lama's return will certainly cause a political stir in both Washington and China.
Although the Bush Administration is cool, at best, the Tibetan movement leader nevertheless has powerful supporters in the U.S. capital, including Sen. Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), the ranking minority member, who agree on little else. Another backer is Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), whose daughter is active in this country's Tibetan independence movement.
The Dalai Lama has been touring the United States for several days already (he is to appear in Los Angeles on Saturday), and his American supporters are also eager to counter Chinese plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Tibet's incorporation into China.
"We're concerned about events in Tibet now," said Kent Wiedemann, director of the State Department's Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs. Last week, U.S. Ambassador to China James R. Lilley made his first official visit to Tibet, and Wiedemann said the ambassador was examining "the overall human rights situation there."
Meanwhile, China's leadership will no doubt fume over any congressional courtesy toward a man they see as a threat to the state--"an exile who engages in political activities aimed at splitting the motherland," as Beijing's deputy consul general in New York, Song Youming, put it in a recent demarche to Massachusetts Institute of Technology President Charles M. Vest. Youming objected to the Dalai Lama's scheduled appearance at an MIT symposium--an appearance Vest defended testily as being part of his university's commitment to freedom of expression.
China asserts that Tibet has always been under its sovereignty--a claim the Dalai Lama rejects. The historical record is mixed. Over the centuries, Tibet has sometimes operated under China's overall protection and has sometimes been independent. It had effective independence--although not worldwide diplomatic recognition--from 1911 until 1950, when China's new Communist government dispatched 40,000 troops to crush Tibetan resistance and occupy the strategically located Himalayan region.
Against that background, Congress isn't ready yet to give formal recognition to the cause of an independent Tibet--a move that would constitute a major slap at the Chinese leadership. But the planned reception for the Dalai Lama inside the Capitol Rotunda will come closer to doing so than at any time in the past 40 years.
Although the Tibetan exile has visited Washington on several previous occasions, he has never before been so publicly embraced by the top congressional leadership. The 1987 incident that sparked the uprising in Tibet was an appearance before only a relatively small group of members of Congress called the Human Rights Caucus.
At that, the Dalai Lama's supporters had hoped for much more. For a while, they even thought they had won a commitment from Foley to have the Tibetan speak to a joint session of Congress.
But in the end, the House Speaker turned them down in favor of the Rotunda plan. Foley has been the Democratic leader most supportive of the Bush Administration's conciliatory policies toward Beijing.
"Traditionally, the invitation to address a joint session of Congress has been extended only to foreign heads of state, with rare exceptions," explained Robin Webb, a spokesman for Foley. "And unfortunately, the Dalai Lama is not a head of state. He is a distinguished religious leader."