In perhaps the most cynical move of his young Administration to date, Barack Obama is refusing to welcome the Dalai Lama to the White House this week, a courtesy the United States has extended to this symbol of peace and human rights for nearly two decades.
Obama’s argument is that it is more important for the United States to throw a bone to his new partner in international relations, the authoritarian Chinese “communist” regime, than signal his support of movements for democracy and human rights in Burma, Vietnam, Tibet and elsewhere throughout Asia.
The news is a significant setback not just to the Tibetan national liberation movement but to human rights on a global scale. While the Chinese communist regime, and their lackeys in Western academia, attacks the Tibetan monks led by the Dalai Lama as a “feudal” institution, in fact, Asian buddhists have been at the forefront of movements for peace, democracy and human rights for nearly fifty years.
Perhaps unknown to Barack Obama, the Asian buddhist movement had a significant influence on the American civil rights and anti-war activist Martin Luther King. As is well known King delivered a speech in New York in 1967 announcing his, then quite controversial, opposition to the U.S. war against Vietnam.
Less well known today is the fact that King cited in his speech the influence of discussions he had had with Thich Nhat Hanh, a leader of the Vietnamese buddhist movement. Thich Nhat Hanh had fled Vietnam to the United States when he was threatened with assassination by BOTH the south Vietnamese regime and the stalinist movement from the north.
Why? Because his Buddhist movement stood for an independent but also democratic Vietnam. The monks who famously engaged in self-immolation in south Vietnam in the early 1960s to protest both the war and the corruption of the South Vietnamese regime were part of the movement organized by Thich Nhat Hanh, a third force in Vietnamese politics that the US violently opposed.
Thich Nhat Hanh remains today a leading figure in what is known as the “engaged” Buddhist movement and his followers continue their support for freedom and human rights inside Vietnam today despite the opposition of the “communist” regime.
Here are the words of Thich Nhat Hanh cited in King’s speech:
“Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
King was so impressed by Thich Nhat Hanh that King nominated him for the same Nobel Peace Prize that King himself had been awarded. In his nomination King said:
“I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
Can we not easily transpose the words of Thich Nhat Hanh to the situation of Afghanistan today or indirectly to US acquiescence in Chinese oppression of Tibet or China’s backing of the generals of Burma?
Is not Barack Obama sacrificing the potential moral authority of the global movement for peace, democracy and human rights by siding with the Chinese regime as opposed to the people of Tibet, of Burma, of Vietnam?
What makes this situation more galling is the apparent support for, or at least acquiescence in, the policy of Obama coming from some of our most prominent legal advocates of human rights. Harold Koh of Yale Law School, Sarah Cleveland of Columbia Law School, Michael Posner of Human Rights First, Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton University, Rosa Brooks of Georgetown and Samantha Power of Harvard University all hold senior positions inside the Obama/Clinton State Department or White House. Together these individuals represent decades of advocacy for human rights yet they now appear to be providing a thin form of political cover for the Obama Administration’s cynical real politik.
This is a State Department that has itself concluded that the human rights situation inside China has worsened recently. According to Bloomberg:
“China’s human rights record worsened last year in areas that included harassment of dissidents and repression of ethnic minorities such as Tibetans, the State Department said today.
“Chinese authorities committed killings and torture outside the legal system, coerced confessions of prisoners and used forced labor, the department said in its 2008 report. The government also “increased detention and harassment of dissidents, petitioners, human rights defenders and defense lawyers,” the department said in the study.”
If any of these prominent human rights supporters has already resigned in protest over the Obama decision then I apologize in advance. But as of tonight no word of such a protest has emerged. A deeper concern emerges now that their actual approach towards human rights is to make it a part of the exercise of state power – to be brought forward when the interests of state power dictate and tossed aside when it becomes inconvenient.
Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia made the critical point, tonight the prison guards in Burma and China rejoice:
“Dissidents in Lhasa will know exactly what it means. Guards will come by their cells and laugh at them. It’s a mistake and the ramifications are going to be felt for months ahead.”
As hundreds of Buddhist monks are in prison for their support of democracy movements in Tibet and Burma, those guards are using the new Obama policy of “constructive engagement” (they call it “strategic reassurance” in a particularly dreadful Orwellian rhetorical manner) with China to try to break the spirit of those monks.
These jailers – and those in the U.S. government who appease them – are this generation’s equivalent of “Bull” Connor and other opponents of the American civil rights movement.
The democratic left owes the Dalai Lama their strongest support. From Aung San Suu Kyii to Vietnamese textile workers to the Tibetan liberation movement, the buddhists are critical sources of inspiration.
It could be argued that the buddhist movement is today the backbone of movements for democracy across Asia. To be silent in the United States about this outrage is to throw overboard the decades of good will built up between the American democratic left and global movements for freedom and human rights reaching back to the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements.
Then as now we must side with those who are willing to put their lives at risk for democracy and human rights not with those in power who work to preserve the narrow interests of their state and its corporate and military establishments.
UPDATE: At least Jon Stewart gets it.
UPDATE: Respected Indian blogger notes key role of Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett – sent to Dharamshala to convince Dalai Lama not to come to D.C. at all until after Obama went to China.