US lawmakers hailed the Dalai Lama as a global inspiration as they welcomed him at the Capitol, urging President Barack Obama to defy China and meet with Tibet’s exiled leader.
Members of the House of Representatives on Thursday briefly put aside a rancorous debate on taming the US debt to receive the Dalai Lama, a rare figure embraced by both sides of the political spectrum in the United States.
House Speaker John Boehner, the third highest-ranking US official under the Constitution, said lawmakers spoke to the Dalai Lama about “our shared values not just in Tibet and China, but in the Middle East as well.”
“His example humbles nations such as ours that work to spread freedom, tolerance and respect for human dignity,” said Boehner, flanked by the Dalai Lama and fellow lawmakers, including top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi.
“We extend to you, Your Holiness, on behalf of the people we serve, our solidarity, our support and our hope that you will come back soon,” Boehner said at a press conference.
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pressed Obama to meet with the Dalai Lama. The White House has stayed mum after previous flaps over its treatment of the monk.
“Beijing is implementing new policies to wipe out the Tibetan culture, such as facilitating the immigration of Han Chinese into Tibet and forcing Tibetan herders to leave the plateau and resettle in concrete block apartments,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a longstanding critic of China.
“It must be clear that the US sides with the victims in Tibet, not the perpetrators in Beijing. President Obama has an opportunity to make a strong statement about what we stand for by meeting with the Dalai Lama,” she said.
Despite her strong tone, the meeting with the Dalai Lama also had light-hearted moments. Ros-Lehtinen posted a picture of the Dalai Lama eating a cupcake offered by lawmakers a day after his 76th birthday.
The maroon-robed monk chose vanilla over chocolate and ate his cupcake with a fork, she wrote on social media site Twitter.
The Dalai Lama is in Washington through next week to lead a Buddhist ritual known as the Kalachakra. In his meeting with the lawmakers, he said he was proud of his recent decision to step down officially from political duties.
The Dalai Lama recalled how China brought him in 1954 to Beijing for the first National People’s Congress and how he later observed India’s parliament under its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
“In Peking, Congress meeting silent,” said the Dalai Lama, laughing. “Whereas in India, full of noise. In parliament, members very fond to criticize each other.
“I was very much impressed in this system of democracy that means freedom of speech, freedom of talk, everyone equal,” he continued.
China sent troops into Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India nine years later during an abortive uprising. China has tried to isolate the Nobel Peace Prize winner and protests his frequent meetings overseas.
“We are firmly against the Dalai Lama engaging in activities aimed at splitting the motherland through overseas visits,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing.
“We are firmly opposed to foreign governments or any political figures supporting and encouraging such activities.”
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said China had communicated its concerns directly to the United States and that “there has not been a decision” on a meeting with the Dalai Lama.
Though Maria Otero, the US under secretary of state for democracy and global affairs who serves as the coordinator on Tibet policy, met with the Dalai Lama on Tuesday and offered “strong US support for the preservation of Tibet’s unique religious, cultural and linguistic identity.”
Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of pursuing separatism. The monk, a follower of India’s apostle of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi, says he accepts Chinese rule and is seeking greater rights for Tibetans.