By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 18, 2007
President Bush presented the Dalai Lama with Congress's highest civilian honor yesterday, pressing China to engage with Tibet's exiled leader in his most significant embrace of a man whose cause and global following have been a constant irritant to Beijing.
Tibet's spiritual and temporal leader accepted the Congressional Gold Medal from Bush, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) in a Capitol Rotunda ceremony that had even some lawmakers dabbing their eyes.
The event marked the first time a U.S. president has appeared in public with the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, who from his first White House visit two decades ago has agreed to private presidential meetings, in deference to China.
"An era that has seen an unprecedented number of nations embrace individual freedom has also witnessed the stubborn endurance of religious repression. Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away," Bush said before a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of dark-clad politicians punctuated by the bright saffron and maroon robes of Tibetan Buddhist monks. Seated behind him on the dais, the Dalai Lama smiled, nodding.
"And that is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China," Bush said. "They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation."
For more than 50 years, the man considered by believers to be the living embodiment of the Buddha has led the struggle for autonomy and religious freedom for his nation of 6 million people. Beijing has controlled the rugged Himalayan nation since 1951, when Communist troops forcibly replaced its quiet self-rule with Chinese authority. Eight years later, the Dalai Lama fled across the mountainous border into exile in India. His encouragement of his homeland's nonviolent rejection of Chinese rule have earned him international renown and humanitarian awards, including the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize.
China, in the midst of the Communist Party's 17th National Congress, reacted with fury to news of the honor, and had "solemnly demanded" cancellation of the event. Beijing considers the Dalai Lama to be a separatist feudal leader whose onetime demand for independence has not changed, despite his efforts to compromise on limited self-rule.
The situation is particularly personal for Chinese President Hu Jintao, an avowed friend of the United States who earlier in his career was involved in the Tibet crackdown. Bush told Hu, who will be acclaimed for a second five-year term at the Communist Party congress, of his plan to attend the medal ceremony last month, while the two leaders attended an Asian economic summit in Australia.
"They didn't like it, of course, but I don't think it's going to damage -- severely damage -- relations. . . . I don't think it ever damages relations when the American president talks about religious tolerance and religious freedom," Bush told reporters before yesterday's ceremony.
Bush and congressional leaders of both parties showed uncommon unity in their request that China consider the Dalai Lama's repeated requests for a meeting to discuss autonomy for Tibet.
Pelosi recalled first meeting the Dalai Lama in 1987. "It was then that His Holiness described a 'Middle Way' approach that seeks real autonomy for Tibetans within the framework of the People's Republic of China. This was a historic moment because His Holiness was relinquishing his goal of independence in favor of a compromise solution."
A spokesman for the Dalai Lama said his remarks were more carefully calibrated than usual, so as not to provoke a strong public response during the Communist meeting in Beijing.
In a sometimes-rambling speech punctuated by laughter and self-deprecating asides about his faulty English, the Dalai Lama thanked "American friends . . . that have stood with us in the most critical of times and under the most intense pressure."
"The consistency of American support for Tibet has not gone unnoticed in China," he said. "That this has caused some tension in the U.S.-Sino relations, I feel a sense of regret."
He praised China for its powerhouse economy and technological advances. And he sought, as he has frequently in the past, to assure China that he has no designs on independence for Tibet.
"I am seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people," he said. "There is no hidden agenda."
He sought to enlist U.S. elected officials in convincing suspicious Chinese leaders of his sincerity and asked them for help in moving the dialogue forward. "I have always encouraged world leaders to engage with China," he said.
One of yesterday's most moving tributes came from novelist and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, another Congressional Gold Medal recipient. He saluted his 72-year-old friend and spoke achingly of their shared exile. "Like Jerusalem . . . Tibet is not far away," he said. "One day when we die . . . we will go to Tibet together."
After the ceremony, the Dalai Lama and Pelosi greeted several thousand people -- some wearing traditional Tibetan dress and others waving Tibetan flags -- gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol. Actor Richard Gere, chairman of the International Campaign for Tibet, presided over a program of traditional singing and tributes under a hot sun that glared off the Capitol's back steps.
For dozens of Buddhist monks present, the event was a reminder of the sufferings endured by their counterparts in Tibet.
"This is history," said Venerable Lama Pema Wangdak, director of the Vikramasila Foundation, a nonprofit Buddhist organization in New York. "For us, there is no greater symbolism than this."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Jacqueline Salmon contributed to this report.