Envoy Is the Lobbying Force Behind Dalai Lama's Medal

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 16, 2007

When President Bush hands the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama tomorrow, Lodi Gyaltsen Gyari will remember how different it was to be the Tibetan leader's "man in Washington" back when he started 17 years ago.

Gyari, the Dalai Lama's special envoy, wasn't even allowed into the State Department then. At the time, American officials were largely unfamiliar with the movement led by the Buddhist monk.

"Some junior officials would meet me in some coffee shop that was as far away as possible from Foggy Bottom," Gyari, 58, said last week as he prepared for the Dalai Lama's five-day trip to Washington, which began yesterday.

For Gyari, the medal ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda is the fruit of nearly two decades of lobbying Congress, the White House and the World Bank for more autonomy for Tibet. But Gyari is no typical advocate. Like the Dalai Lama, he is believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be the reincarnation of an important lama, or guru, and lived in a monastery as a boy.

But Gyari left that life long ago to serve Tibetan liberty and today looks, with his suit and briefcase, like the suburban dad he is.

Gyari also brings some complex family baggage. He is the progeny of legendary Tibetan freedom fighters: an aunt (who raised him and whom he calls his second mother) was one of the first Tibetans to take up arms against the Chinese in the 1950s, and her mother-in-law, who was executed and later the subject of Tibetan revolutionary folk songs.

"When the Chinese sit at a table and engage with him, they know who he is," said Kate Saunders, spokeswoman for the International Campaign for Tibet, a D.C.-based advocacy group, whose board of directors is chaired by actor Richard Gere, a longtime Tibet activist. Gyari also sits on the board.

Although his ancestors fought for Tibetan independence from China, Gyari is a modern diplomat facing a rising superpower. As the lead negotiator with China, he makes the case for autonomy of Tibetans within China -- the rights to govern their own religious institutions, maintain their language and oversee public education, among other things.

Gyari, a former journalist and chairman of the Tibetan parliament in exile, knows there are many Tibetans -- including some in his family -- who still want to separate from China. He remembers his aunt's reaction in 1988, when the Dalai Lama proposed limiting, but not eliminating, China's oversight of Tibet: "She was furious with me." She told Gyari, who was a high-ranking official in the exile government at the time, that if she had known he was carrying the document laying out the proposal, " 'I would have torn it to shreds,' " he recalls her saying.

The original impetus for awarding the Dalai Lama the medal came from several members of Congress who have long championed him, particularly Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Tom Lantos, both California Democrats. But legislation bestowing the medal on a recipient must be co-sponsored by two thirds of the membership of both the House of Representatives and the Senate before their respective committees will consider it. Gyari went from one legislator's office to another, trying to explain to them what the Dalai Lama does and to convince them that he is not trying to break Tibet away from China.

Chinese diplomats, Hill staffers said, pressed hard against the Dalai Lama getting the medal, and were particularly upset when Bush announced last week that he would personally present it to him. In doing so, Bush will become the first U.S. president to meet the Dalai Lama in public.

"China resolutely opposes the U.S. Congress awarding the Dalai its so-called Congressional Gold Medal, and firmly opposes any country or any person using the Dalai issue to interfere in China's internal affairs," the Associated Press quoted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao as saying at a news conference Thursday.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company