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China: Beijing Chafes At Dalai Lama's Visit To Mongolia

  • Antoine Blua --> The Dalai Lama addresses the crowd at Ulan Bator's Central Sports Stadium on August 23 (AFP) PRAGUE, August 23, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- The Dalai Lama has embarked on a weeklong visit to Mongolia at the invitation of that country's largest monastery. The Mongolian government is eager to avoid confrontation with its biggest export partner, China. It has insisted the visit is a nonpolitical matter. But officials in Beijing, who regard the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader as a separatist, are watching closely.

The Dalai Lama's sermon todaydrew about 10,000 people to the Central Stadium in Ulan Bator, the capital of predominantly Buddhist Mongolia.

Seated on a lotus-shaped throne, the Dalai Lama said humans cannot gain happiness through material objects. He said Buddhism has "highly detailed methods" for achieving happiness and bliss.
"Mongolians adhere to the school of Buddhism to which the Dalai Lama belongs. And Mongolians consider the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. So this visit is purely religious in nature."

On August 22, the Tibetan Buddhist leader visited Mongolia's biggest monastery, Gandantegcheling. There he delivered an address stressing the importance of traditional family values in "difficult times of change."

Flight Delay

The same day, an Air China flight to Ulan Bator was delayed for about 12 hours. Airline officials blamed bad weather, but observers have been tempted to view the delay as a symbolic warning from Beijing.

Choimboroljav Sumiyabazar, editor-in-chief of the English-language "UB Post" in the Mongolian capital, suggested to RFE/RL that the delay might signal Chinese discontent regarding the Dalai Lama's visit.

"Last time [the Dalai Lama] came to Mongolia, in 2002, Chinese authorities closed down railway links with Mongolia," Sumiyabazar said. "And this time, the Chinese airline company delayed its flights to Ulan Bator for weather reasons. But the weather here is good, actually."

Low-Key Visit

China has criticized Mongolia for hosting the Dalai Lama despite its efforts to keep the trip low-key.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said it opposes any country giving the Dalai Lama a venue for what it called his "separatist activities."

A Mongolian Foreign Ministry statement countered that the visit is a "purely religious matter and nonpolitical."

A 1989 Nobel Peace prizewinner, the Dalai Lama arrived in Ulan Bator with little fanfare late on August 21 for his seventh visit to Mongolia. He was greeted by a few monks at the airport and a representative from the Indian Embassy before being whisked away in a motorcade.

'Purely Religious'

Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Central Tibet Administration in Dharamsala, India, where the religious leader is exiled, said China has no reason to protest.

"[The Dalai Lama] has responded to invitations by the biggest monastery in Mongolia, Gandantegcheling, to give teaching to the Mongolian public," Samphel told RFE/RL. "Mongolians adhere to the school of Buddhism to which the Dalai Lama belongs. And Mongolians consider the Dalai Lama as their spiritual leader. So this visit is purely religious in nature."

Tibet was occupied by Chinese communist troops in 1950 and designated the Tibetan Autonomous Region 15 years later. The Dalai Lama, who fled to India during a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959, says he wants real autonomy for his homeland. But he denies Chinese accusations that he is seeking independence.

China routinely calls on countries not to allow the Tibetan Buddhist leader to visit, sometimes hinting at possible diplomatic or commercial retaliation.

...And Geopolitics

But Rana Mitter, a teacher of modern Chinese politics and history at Oxford University in Britain, told RFE/RL that Beijing in unlikely to make a major diplomatic incident out of the Dalai Lama's visit to Mongolia.

"Mongolia has a strong interest in becoming member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the international cooperative body in which China and Russia are the two major members. And I think China would like to encourage Mongolia to join that organization eventually, since it would help to boost China's international prestige," Mitter said. "Also [the Chinese] do recognize that Mongolia has become a largely democratic country, and therefore the decision of a monastery to invite the Dalai Lama doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the government's own policy."

Mongolia was under Chinese rule until winning independence in 1921, with Soviet backing.

For decades after that, Mongolia was once seen as the 16th republic of the Soviet Union. But ties between Ulan Bator and Moscow have declined since the early 1990s -- seemingly to the benefit of China. Mongolia has nurtured its economic and political relations with Beijing to cater to the needs of booming Chinese markets.

Religion in Mongolia has also enjoyed a renaissance in the 15 years since the end of communist rule. In the more than 60 years that Mongolia was a Soviet satellite, thousands of monks were killed and monasteries across the country were destroyed.