Call to help Tibetans puts pressure on Canada’s new religion envoy

Ottawa - The political leader of exiled Tibetans is calling on Canada’s ambassador for religious freedom to investigate religious repression and suicide in his homeland, squeezing the week-old post into a tricky diplomatic position.

Lobsang Sangay, the head of the Central Tibetan Administration (also known as the Tibetan Government in Exile), made his plea while visiting Ottawa this week to seek support for Tibetan autonomy. He argued that growing business connections between Canada and China should not silence Canada’s concern for human rights in Tibet.

His challenge could prove an acid test for the Conservative government’s new Office of Religious Freedom: Any attempt to send such an envoy to China would be bound to cause offence.

Mr. Sangay’s visit comes amid a series of self-immolations in Tibet, where 106 people have set themselves on fire in the past three years to protest Chinese rule, the latest on Monday.

Mr. Sangay wants the Harper government to send its newly created ambassador for religious freedom, Andrew Bennett, to investigate.

“I would really like to see, and request, that the ambassador of religious freedom visit Tibet. Because religious freedom is very much at the core of self-immolation – as well as other issues – in Tibet,” Mr. Sangay said. “And now, the office is established, there’s an ambassador. If he could go to Tibet and investigate the situation, that would be a welcome gesture.”

The self-immolations are a sensitive political matter in China, which has responded to the gruesome protests with a crackdown, arresting 12 people accused of encouraging them. Mr. Sangay and his Tibetan Government in Exile have repeatedly said they discourage self-immolations, but Chinese authorities have accused the Dalai Lama – the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists – and the Central Tibetan Administration of instigating them.

Now Mr. Bennett, a former civil servant and Christian college dean, faces a call to take on a mission that could test the effectiveness of his new office.

The Harper government established the Office of Religious Freedom to promote freedom of worship around the world. But plans for the office, announced before the 2011 election, have been controversial. Some have complained it is a vote-getting nod to the religious right, while others argue it has little chance of being effective because it will be shunned by countries where religious freedoms are given short shrift.

Even if the Conservatives agree to send Mr. Bennett to Tibet, it’s not clear whether China – which often warns other nations against interference and considers Tibet a “core interest” – would accommodate such a visit.

“They should, because they always say we have nothing to hide, anyone can come and see things for themselves,” Mr. Sangay said.

“If that is the basis of their argument, then the Canadian government should say, ‘Then we would like to see what is going on inside Tibet. And we will report to you objectively, as a friend, and also report to the world what is going on.’ ”

Mr. Sangay, born in a refugee camp in India, was elected as the Sikyong, or prime minister, of the Tibetan Government in Exile in 2011 – just as the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, gave up his political role.

Mr. Sangay said the rising number of self-immolations stems from the repression of political and religious freedoms, and crackdowns on other forms of protest.

“The cause of self-immolation is clear: political repression, economic marginalization, environmental destruction, cultural assimilation and denial of religious freedom. It’s very clear. And occupation is the main cause,” he said.

“Religious freedom is one of the most important components. Many of the self-immolators are also monks and nuns.”

The request for Canada to send an envoy to Tibet also raises a potential headache for Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, which initially backed the Tibetan cause assertively, but in recent years has been more concerned with warming relations with Beijing to promote trade.

Mr. Sangay said Canada has remained supportive, noting that it has issued statements about Tibetan political freedom, most recently in December, and that Mr. Harper has met several times with the Dalai Lama. Some other heads of state shy away from such meetings, he said, and he hopes that Canada’s business interests with China do not lead Ottawa to silence its concerns about Tibet.

“I always say, just because you keep quiet, don’t expect the Chinese government to give you a better deal. They’re good business people. And then, if you don’t speak out on these core issues … they’ll take you as weak.”