US President George Bush and the country's Congress united in issuing a powerful appeal to China to engage the Dalai Lama directly in talks to resolve the five-decades-old Tibetan issue while conferring on him the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honour on October 17. <b1>
The vehemence and unequivocal nature of the appeal was surprising coming as it did in the face of some very strong protests from China which went to the extent of asking Washington to abandon the honor altogether.
With the formal ceremony in the historic Capitol Rotunda, the Dalai Lama became the 146th recipient of the medal.
An embattled president desperately struggling to rescue his legacy because of the Iraq debacle made a particularly strong show of his support for Tibet two days in a row, having held an extraordinary private meeting with the Dalai Lama on Oct 16. He described him as a "good man of peace and reconciliation."
"Over the years, Congress has conferred the Gold Medal on many great figures in history -- usually at a time when their struggles were over and won. Today Congress has chosen to do something different. It has conferred this honor on a figure whose work continues -- and whose outcome remains uncertain," he said.
The movers and shakers of US Congress and Senate said it was time for the Dalai Lama to visit Beijing to hold substantive talks with the Chinese leadership. The Dalai Lama himself sought the US help in convincing the Communist leadership of his "sincerity."
The dramatic if sudden reemergence of the Tibetan question on America's political centerstage is baffling to many and there is every likelihood that the attention may turn out to be transient. Notwithstanding that both the executive and legislative branches of the government represented by the highest leaders on both sides have thrown their weight behind the Dalai Lama at a time there is a growing perception that China is under pressure to put its best foot forward for the Olympics.
It was a measure of how encouraged the supporters of the Tibetan cause felt that Richard Gere, actor and longtime proponent of the cause, went to the extent of expressing the hope that the Dalai Lama will be in Lhasa in "two years." Even discounting the rhetoric prompted by the excitement of the historic honor, there was something in the Capitol Hill's atmosphere suggestive of a fundamental shift.
The one and half hour ceremony came as a shot in the arm for the 72-year-old Dalai Lama who said in jest that he was already leading a semi-retired life. He restated his position that he stands for "meaningful autonomy" and not independence and was not a "splittist" as frequently charged by China. He spoke in favor of China's economic rise and said it was good for Tibet. In the same breath he also said Tibet was fast losing its identity because of the growing Han Chinese population in and around Lhasa. He revisited his humble past as a son of a peasant in the province of Amdo to underscore how gratified he was to receive America's highest civilian honor.
On another level he said felt "a sense of regret" over the sharp tensions caused in bilateral relations with China because of the honor. He continued to strike conciliatory notes saying he would not use any future agreement with China "as a steppingstone for Tibet's independence." At the same time he urged China to embrace "transparency, the rule of law and freedom of information."
The honor came in the face of China calling it a "farce." "The protagonist of this farce is the Dalai Lama," said Ye Xiaowen, director general of the State Administration for Religious Affairs,
Asked at a news conference later whether the honor to the Dalai Lama would seriously damage relations with China, Bush said, "I don't think it ever damages relations when an American president talks about, you know - religious tolerance and religious freedom is good for a nation. I do this every time I meet with him."
Among others who spoke included Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She said Tibetans who "continue to suffer under the iron grip of Beijing's rulers," and said the Tibetans know "that truth and justice will prevail over evil and repression."
Representative Tom Lantos, the Democrat is who chairman of the powerful committee, countered Chinese accusations that the Dalai Lama is a separatist. "Let this man of peace visit Beijing," he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi spoke of her long association with the Dalai Lama and also called on Beijing to engage him for a substantive dialogue.