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Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama

During his visit to the White House, the Tibetan leader-in-exile will not be treated as a head of state but as an 'internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights.'

February 18, 2010|By Christi Parsons

Reporting from Washington — President Obama will receive the Dalai Lama on Thursday in the Map Room of the White House instead of the Oval Office, not one-on-one but in a group, and then will leave town without a joint appearance before television cameras.

Pointedly employing no protocol that implies head-of-state status for the Tibetan leader-in-exile, the White House is also being explicit about its invitation: Obama meets the Dalai Lama as an "internationally respected religious leader and spokesman for Tibetan rights."

The details of the visit, along with its timing, follow months of conversations with representatives of the Buddhist spiritual leader, and were carefully crafted to convey respect while not breaking with previous practice -- or brazenly aggravating Chinese leaders, already put out that the meeting is happening at all.

The White House has given advance notice of its plans to the Chinese, who consider the Dalai Lama a separatist seeking independence for the Tibetan region within China. The Obama administration has been seeking Chinese cooperation on issues such as climate change and sanctions on Iran.

The administration says its goal is to promote relations between the Chinese and the Tibetan leader, who says he seeks only autonomy for his people.

"He's going to receive the Dalai Lama in much the same way that previous presidents have received him in recent years," a senior administration official said of the president. "We have coordinated with the Dalai Lama and his people in terms of what's the best way forward to try and have them engage in talks with the Chinese."

Administration officials say they are concerned about the human rights of Tibetans, and though official U.S. policy regards the region to be part of China, they also want the Chinese government to protect the cultural and religious traditions of Tibet.

As they carefully tread the diplomatic lines, though, the Obama team also has domestic political considerations to think about. The president stirred up criticism in some corners of his Democratic base last fall when he decided not to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Human rights advocates are heartened that Obama is going ahead with the meeting over China's official objection.

"I don't understand, as an activist, why the president would not meet him in the Oval Office, when the Oval Office hosts all kinds of Girls Scouts and basketball players," said Mary Beth Markey, vice president for international advocacy for the International Campaign for Tibet.

"But it doesn't help the Dalai Lama's efforts, or the Chinese relationship, to get bogged down in where they are meeting," Markey added.

Though there will be no joint news conference afterward, the Dalai Lama has the option of meeting journalists in a designated area outside of the West Wing.

Asked Wednesday if that would happen, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs laughed.

"It would be a little more than awkward," he said, "to restrict his right to speech."

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