Obama tells Dalai Lama to sit in the back of the bus

dalailamaIn 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.

thich-quang-ducLess 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:

newnewnew2“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.

photo01Congressman 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.

015monks_468x286It 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.

6 thoughts on “Obama tells Dalai Lama to sit in the back of the bus

  1. JM Hanes

    Steve:

    It is disheartening to see the White House rejection of the Dalai Lama characterized as a “snub,” or even less seriously as a “symbolic” snub. What’s worse, is that this high profile episode is part of a substantive pattern that cements the apprehension of dissidents and the confidence of oppressors everywhere.

    Not even three weeks ago, this Administration gave the nod to Burma:

    For the first time in nine years, the United States allowed Burma’s foreign minister to come to Washington, a sign of softening U.S. policy toward the military junta that has run that Asian nation for nearly five decades.

    Maj. Gen. Nyan Win quietly arrived in Washington on Friday night and left the next day after meetings with Burmese Embassy staffers, a U.S.-Asian business council and Sen. James Webb, the Virginia Democrat who has advocated closer ties to the junta, according to Kyaw Win, an embassy spokesman. The foreign minister also took in some sightseeing, visiting the White House, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. A State Department spokesman said Nyan Win did not meet with administration officials.

    The main goal of the trip was to evaluate the Burmese Embassy, which needs repairs, Kyaw Win said. “The approval is a good sign though,” he said. “We didn’t get permission for many years.”

    Because Embassy maintenance and inspection so obviously require the Foreign Minister’s personal attention.

    Only two days ago, the Administration’s passive indifference to abuses in Iran took a more ominous turn:

    For the past five years, researchers in a modest office overlooking the New Haven green have carefully documented cases of assassination and torture of democracy activists in Iran. With more than $3 million in grants from the US State Department, they have pored over thousands of documents and Persian-language press reports and interviewed scores of witnesses and survivors to build dossiers on those they say are Iran’s most infamous human-rights abusers.

    But just as the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center was ramping up to investigate abuses of protesters after this summer’s disputed presidential election, the group received word that – for the first time since it was formed – its federal funding request had been denied.

    “If there is one time that I expected to get funding, this was it,’’ said Rene Redman, the group’s executive director, who had asked for $2.7 million in funding for the next two years. “I was sur prised, because the world was watching human rights violations right there on television.’’

    The retreat from “living our values” is simply stunning.

  2. bgates

    Can we not easily transpose the words of Thich Nhat Hanh to the situation of Afghanistan today

    No, at least not any more easily than we could have applied them to the situation of France in the 40s. The left could have made the same argument then as it has made about every American military involvement since – the Nazis are bad, sure, but the French were anti-Semitic, and if they were “liberated” (an implausible word, since most of the country was autonomous) it would do nothing to improve the lot of their oppressed colonies, so a pox on both their houses.
    Given that no government is perfectly good, the best we can hope in any conflict is to support the lesser evil; I think we did that in South Vietnam, as we did with the western European empires, nationalist China, and the Soviet Union, and as we are doing in Afghanistan.

  3. Stephen Diamond Post author

    Of course, Eric, that is the fairy tale that the liberal wing of American imperial power always trots out in these circumstances.

    It’s likely what is allowing the Obama movement to sleep at night this week knowing what they just did to the Dalai Lama, the symbolic leader of the mass movement for democracy being led by buddhists across Asia today.

    There are several problems with the argument.

    First, you assume the US has a genuine interest and commitment to a real opening up as you put it in China. There is no such interest or commitment. China’s rigidly authoritarian communist party – communist in name only and for that matter not a party but a powerful social force – has actually increased state control of the economy over the last decade (see the work of Barry Naughton for example).

    And in the political arena even the US State Department points out that the regime has been cracking down on dissidents and new shoots of mass discontent triggered by sweatshop conditions on the coast, land theft and rampant development in the rural heartland and massive unemployment in the older industrial regions.

    The real interest of the United States is one they share with the rulers in Beijing – stability to guard their trillions of dollars invested in the region and control of the labor power that goes into the massive industrial complexes built in joint ventures between western (including Japan) corporations and the Chinese rulers.

    A mass movement for democracy and human rights would also begin to impact economic issues and likely argue for – as it should – more equitable and sustainable development. That kind of movement is an inherent threat to the power of both the United States and China. Thus the overall goal of both powers is to make sure such a movement does not gain too much momentum.

    The same dynamic can be illustrated by the way in which the United States continually walked away from opportunities to back democratization efforts in eastern Europe, stretching back to the 1950s uprisings in east Germany and Hungary through to the 1980s Solidarity movement. The west had lent those countries billions and they were more interested in being repaid and in integrating cheap labor into the global economy than they were in genuine democracy and human rights.

    If the American government occasionally gives lip service to human rights it is only to gain some leverage on regimes like China’s – leverage they can play for certain goals like military incursions into Chinese waters.

    I also take issue with your claim that the Tibetan issue has been deadlocked for a long time. I note you use the passive voice but your use of the words dead and locked is interesting. Who has been doing the killing? Who has been doing the locking up? The Chinese regime. Meanwhile the buddhist movement and the wider movement for democracy in Tibet, in Burma (a regime propped up by China) and in Vietnam gains steam and courage. Hardly a dead lock when thousands challenge those regimes with strikes, demonstrations and political campaigns.

  4. Eric

    This decision has the potential to open up a political situation that has been deadlocked for a long time.

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