BANGKOK, Thailand — In the age of growing Chinese influence, there’s a simple measure of a country’s willingness to test China’s wrath. Will they stamp the Dalai Lama’s passport?
Add Thailand to the shrinking list of nations that won’t.
China is succeeding in its mission to globally ostracize the Tibetan monk, likely the world’s best-known Buddhist and the face of Tibet’s resistance to Chinese rule. And despite Southeast Asia’s entrenched Buddhism, China’s diplomatic shadow has now blacked out the entire region for the Dalai Lama.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet the 74-year-old monk on Feb. 18 at the White House, only after dodging a proposed sit-down last fall. South Africa, fearing Chinese backlash, banned the Dalai Lama in advance of the 2010 World Cup. In the few Asian countries that still allow his entry, officials generally dodge photo-ops and sit-downs with the spiritual leader, described by China’s communist party as a “jackal in monk’s robes.”
The Dalai Lama’s popularity in America — where he’s revered among conservative circles, left-leaning lawmakers and the Beastie Boys alike — is nearly matched in Thailand.
However, as in much of the world, the Dalai Lama’s office says that Thailand has been quietly turning down the celebrity monk’s visa requests.
Why would the Dalai Lama want to come to Thailand?
He’s routinely invited by various Thai institutions, said Tenzin Taklha, joint secretary of the India-based Office of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
An estimated 95 percent of Thais are Buddhist, making Thailand perhaps the world’s most Buddhist nation. Though the Dalai Lama practices Tibetan Buddhism — a more mystical branch compared to Thailand’s conservative Theravada Buddhism — he is still highly regarded among Thais.
Thailand is also the base for one of the Dalai Lama’s pet causes, democracy in military-dominated Burma and the release of imprisoned Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi. Her supporters are rallying support in advance of Burma’s 2010 elections and her possible release.
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama last visited Thailand in 1993 when a group of Nobel Peace laureates held a solidarity meeting for fellow Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi,” Tenzin Taklha said. “Since then, His Holiness has not been able to visit Thailand because of the refusal of the necessary visa from the Thai government, for reasons known to them.”
Why won’t Thailand allow him to enter?
A visit would infuriate China, one of Thailand’s largest trading partners, and likely poison trade and diplomatic relations.
The Dalai Lama isn’t explicitly barred through policy, said Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, secretary to the minister of foreign affairs. “Of course, we would consider it case by case,” he said. “But, generally, we don’t allow anyone to use Thailand as a base country to do any political activities or instigate violence in other countries.”
The Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, has indirectly acknowledged that a Dalai Lama invite would be an unwarranted insult to China.
Last year, he drew an oddly flattering parallel between the Dalai Lama and the fugitive billionaire and ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is sought for arrest by the Thai government. Thaksin is currently hopping the globe while organizing a movement to oust the ruling party.
Other countries shouldn’t shelter Thaksin, Kasit said, just as Thailand shouldn’t allow the Dalai Lama to criticize China from Thai soil.
Are there any Asian countries the Dalai Lama can still visit?
A few. The Dalai Lama’s office is based in India, which borders Tibet and openly resents Chinese encroachment into its backyard. He is sometimes allowed to speak in Japan, though officials typically keep their distance. He is also occasionally granted access to Taiwan, China’s bitter enemy, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
But a review of the Dalai Lama’s travel schedule through the last two decades shows only two Southeast Asia visits: the 1993 Thailand visit and a 1992 trip to Indonesia.
The region is now too beholden to Chinese trade and aid to risk a Dalai Lama invite, said Kevin Hewison, director of the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
“The U.S. being tied up in the Middle East left a void that China has intentionally filled,” Hewison said. “China’s trade, investment and aid in Southeast Asia has made it the most important player in the region now.”
These relationships are mostly business-driven and require few diplomatic concessions. “But there are some things you can’t do,” he said. “You can’t support Taiwan. And you can’t push independence for Tibet. It’s self-censorship.”