Dalai Lama Conciliatory During Visit to South Africa

"I’m not seeking independence for Tibet. But the Chinese government and the media still call me a separatist. There is a lot of suspicion," the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, told journalists in South Africa’s commercial hub of Johannesburg Thursday.

The Dalai Lama, whose title means "Ocean of Wisdom", is currently on a week-long visit to South Africa at the invitation of the African Cultural Heritage Trust.

This weekend, he is scheduled to deliver a speech entitled ‘The Role of Cultural Heritage and Arts in the Development of Free Societies’ in Soweto, a predominantly black suburb situated south-west of Johannesburg. He will also open a dance and music festival organised by the heritage trust.

The 69-year-old, whose name is Lhamo Dhondup, saw China invade his country in 1949.

In 1954 he went to Beijing, the capital of China, for talks with Mao Zedong and other Chinese leaders – including Deng Xiaoping. But finally in 1959, with the brutal suppression of a national uprising in the main Tibetan city of Lhasa, the Dalai Lama fled the country.

Since then, he has been living in Dharamsala in northern India, where he heads a government-in-exile. Over 100,000 of the Dalai Lama’s countrymen also fled Tibet, which has a population of about six million; they are currently scattered in India, Nepal, Bhutan – and further afield.

"It is exactly 50 years since I was in mainland China and so many things have changed there," said the Dalai Lama, adding "I have the desire to visit mainland China and Tibet to see the changes there for myself."

A Chinese embassy official in South Africa’s capital, Pretoria, said there was no reason why Dalai Lama should not visit China.

"There is no basis for the Chinese government to prevent a Chinese from visiting China. I don’t think he (the Dalai Lama) should have any problem as a spiritual and cultural leader, and since he says he’s not fighting for the independence of Tibet," the official told IPS Thursday.

In 1998 Chinese President Jiang Zemin said he was willing to hold negotiations with the Dalai Lama on condition that he recognised Tibet as an inalienable part of China. This came after a 1993 letter by the Dalai Lama to Beijing, in which he said that Tibetans were "not incapable of seeing the possible advantages of living with the Chinese" if their basic rights were guaranteed.

According to the New York-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch, peaceful lobbying for freedom in Tibet – or the act of raising the banned Tibetan flag – can lead to torture and imprisonment.

"The human rights situation in Tibet continues to be extremely poor and requires vigilance. The number of monks in any given monastery and the total number in all of Tibet continue to be restricted," said the group in a letter to French president Jacques Chirac, this on the occasion of his Oct. 8 to 12 visit to China.

"Mandatory patriotic re-education regularly occurs in monasteries and nunneries. Monks and nuns who refuse to acknowledge that Tibet has always been a part of China, or who maintain allegiance to, or refuse to denounce, the Panchen Lama acknowledged by the Dalai Lama risk expulsion," it added.

The Panchen Lama is the second most important figure in the Gelugpa sect of Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. In 1995, the Dalai Lama named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima as the latest Panchen Lama; however, China has designated another child to fill this position – and has taken the initial Panchen Lama into custody.

Human Rights Watch says it has also received reports of villagers being forced to move in order to make way for "resource extraction and hydroelectric projects". This has led to a situation where illiterate rural Tibetans have been obliged to relocate to urban areas where their lack of education makes finding employment difficult.

The United States has been encouraging Beijing to talk to the Dalai Lama or his representatives; President George W. Bush also held discussions with the Dalai Lama in Washington last year.

During the September meeting, Bush reiterated the commitment of the U.S. to the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural, and linguistic identity and the protection of the human rights in the country.

However, the Dalai Lama does not anticipate a more vigorous defence of these rights during Bush’s second term in office: "I don’t see much change. It was the same with (former president Bill) Clinton, the same with (former president George H) Bush."

Asked by journalists which candidate he had wanted to win this week’s presidential election in the U.S., the Dalai Lama said, "That’s American business. Of course, I met Bush and his father. I also know (Democratic challenger John) Kerry. But it’s all up to the American people to choose whoever they want to lead them."

This is the Dalai Lama’s third trip to South Africa, the first being in 1996 and the second in 1999. Reports indicate that no meeting has been scheduled for him with South African President Thabo Mbeki.

A meeting of the two leaders was planned in 1999; however, this was abandoned after protests from the Chinese government.

In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He has written more than 50 books including ‘Freedom in Exile’ and the bestselling ‘Ancient Wisdom, Modern World: Ethics for the New Millennium’.