The Dalai Lama gets his gig

In breaking news this evening, Sydney University has announced that its Institute for Democracy and Human Rights will host a lecture by the Dalai Lama in mid-June, under the theme “Education Matters”. It says it “will be the first engagement of the Dalai Lama during his Australian tour.”

The reason this is news, of course, is that last week it was suggested that the University had vetoed a proposed talk by the Dalai Lama, possibly due to its heavy reliance on Chinese students and consequent cosy relationship with the Chinese government. The University issued what was not quite a denial of the suggestion, saying that he would instead be speaking at a hotel where he could “address a wider group of students from across a number of universities.”

This is, of course, an all-too-familiar pattern. No-one who values their relationship with the Chinese government wants to be seen with the Dalai Lama, but no-one who cares about their public image wants to be seen to be turning him down. It’s a delicate balancing act.

Recall back in 2007, for example, when both prime minister John Howard and opposition leader Kevin Rudd initially refused to schedule a meeting with him. But when it became a matter of public controversy Rudd changed his mind, and Howard eventually followed suit, after apparently spending four weeks checking his diary.

I wrote at the time (in a blog post that I can no longer find on the Crikey site) that “As usual, the exiled Tibetan leader conveys an air of serene acceptance of all this. But keeping him hanging for almost a month is surely much more offensive than a simple refusal would have been.”

But rudeness has been completely bipartisan: since Labor returned to office, both Rudd and Julia Gillard have declined opportunities to meet the Dalai Lama. Last year, Gillard rather embarrassingly won praise from the Chinese media on that account.

Officially, the Nobel laureate no longer has any position in the Tibetan government in exile; in his travels he presents himself simply as a religious teacher, and organisations like Sydney University are only too eager to deny any political content to his message. But at the age of 77 he remains the heart and soul of Tibetan nationalism, and China’s well-attested paranoia about him is testament to his continuing relevance.


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