The next time the Dalai Lama visits the UK, it should be in No.10 with the PM.
Earlier this month the Dalai Lama visited Northern Ireland as part of his European tour, where he spoke at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of Children in Crossfire. Unfortunately, that was it. Given that his visits to the UK are few and far between, with his last visit in September 2015, this seems like a missed opportunity.
It was a missed opportunity for the Prime Minister who could have made a bold gesture of support towards the Tibetan people and called on China to renew dialogue with the Tibetan Government in Exile.
After all, the Dalai Lama is a revered and respected champion of Tibet across the world. It is not unreasonable to ask the Prime Minister to have such a meeting. In fact, it would be entirely within tradition, since her four predecessors have all done so.
If she fails to meet the Dalai Lama it would break an important precedent and give future government’s an excuse to follow suit. That’s why as soon as Theresa May entered No.10 last summer Free Tibet called on her to meet him.
With the Government’s increased willingness to kowtow to the Peoples Republic of China (PRC), and subsequent attempts to downplay the importance of previous visits by the Dalai Lama, there is a real chance a meeting won’t happen. After all, Margaret Thatcher refused point-blank to meet the Dalai Lama.
Of course, things dramatically changed once Thatcher left office. Her successor, John Major, publically held a meeting with the Dalai Lama in No.10. Shortly after, Major told the House of Commons:
The substantive part of my discussion with the Dalai Lama was specifically concerned with human rights —most notably, though not exclusively, in Tibet. We discussed the present situation and the representations that we had made to the People's Republic of China, and I reaffirmed the fact that I would continue to make such representations.
This may be the high water mark in the UK’s support for the Tibetan people. Even the "New Labour" government of the late 90's, with its emphasis on an ethical foreign policy, were keen to stress that Tony Blair was meeting the Dalai Lama strictly in his religious capacity. Like Major, Blair also invited senior figures from the Church of England to attend the meeting.
Attempts to reinforce this image of a non-political faith dialogue were stepped up under Gordon Brown who controversially met the Dalai Lama in Lambeth Palace, the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, instead of Downing Street.
This downgrade was continued by the Coalition Government. In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg arranged a meeting with the Dalai Lama in St Paul’s Cathedral. Yet even this low key event resulted in a harsh freezing of diplomatic relations by Beijing, which in turn provoked a concerted campaign by Cameron to secure Chinese trade deals by silencing criticism of China’s human rights record. After publicly ruling out future meetings with the Dalai Lama, Cameron had “turned a page on that issue” a close source told the media.
This position bizarrely flared up later in the year when two government ministers, with a long track record of campaigning for Tibet, were barred by figures at the top of the government from meeting the Dalai Lama in the British Parliament.
Sadly this effort to forge a ‘Golden Era’ of relations between the British government and the Chinese Communist Party appears to have been embraced by current PM Theresa May.
This has resulted in more than just Beijing dictating who the UK Prime Minister can and cannot meet. Alongside the downgrading of the Dalai Lama, we have also seen a change in successive government’s line on Tibet. They have now accepted PRC rule of Tibet and reject any notion of Tibetan independence.
All the while, the political situation in Tibet and conditions for Tibetan activists has worsened. Freedom House’s 2017 Annual Report, which ranks political rights and civil liberties across the globe, ranked Tibet as the second worst in the world. This placed it only below Syria. North Korea, Somalia and Saudi Arabia all received more favourable ratings than Tibet.
The repression in Tibet is a political problem which will require political solutions. The Dalai Lama, alongside the Tibetan Government in Exile, will have to be part of any future dialogue. The trend towards presenting meetings with the Dalai Lama as solely part of an "inter-faith dialogue" misses this important point. However, as the Dalai Lama has said himself, it is talking that matters more than where or how meetings take place. Let’s hope Theresa May agrees and sends an invite to the Dalai Lama the next time he comes to the UK.
Gray Sergeant joined Free Tibet’s campaign team in June 2017 after spending a number of years as a Labour Party activist in South Essex. He is interested in human rights in East Asia, including Tibet, and is critical of the current UK government's efforts to forge a 'Golden Era' in relations between Britain and the People's Republic of China. Alongside work, Gray is also undertaking a masters course in Chinese Politics at SOAS, University of London.