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Monday, September 24, 2007

Merkel backs Dalai Lama's quest for Tibetan cultural autonomy

Merkel backs Dalai Lama's quest for Tibetan cultural autonomy

German Chancellor Angela Merkel meets Dalai Lama.

BERLIN : Defying pressure from China, German Chancellor Angela Merkel held an historic meeting with the Dalai Lama on Sunday, and gave support to the Buddhist leader's quest for cultural autonomy for Tibet.

"The chancellor paid tribute to the Dalai Lama as a religious leader and assured him of support for his efforts to preserve the cultural identity of Tibet and for his peaceful quest for religious and cultural autonomy," her spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm said afterwards.

The meeting lasted almost an hour and marked the first time that the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, whose worldwide following is a thorn in China's side, has been received by a German chancellor.

It came just weeks after a three-day visit by Merkel to China in which she took a tough line on human rights issues.

Merkel's office, like the Dalai Lama in an interview with a German newspaper, took care however to point out that he is not demanding full independence from China, which sent its troops into Tibet in 1950.

Wilhelm said the Dalai Lama told Merkel about his role as the highest spiritual authority of Tibetan Buddhism and his work on behalf of the Himalayan region he fled almost half a century ago.

"The 1989 Nobel Peace prize winner stressed the peaceful, non-violent nature of his engagement, which expressly excludes striving for independence for Tibet from the People's Republic of China," he said.

In recent days, China has denounced the Dalai Lama as a separatist who seeks to harm the country interests and warned Berlin to retract the invitation to the chancellery.

On Sunday, Chinese officials snubbed a meeting with German Justice Minister Brigitte Zypries in Munich in apparent retaliation.

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily at the weekend spoke of "a crisis" between the two countries and said Merkel had gone against the advice of senior officials in pursuing the meeting.

China is Germany's biggest trading partner in the Asia-Pacific region.

Merkel was seen as breaking diplomatic ground during her visit in August when she invited President Hu Jintao to discuss human rights, met with a journalist who has fallen foul of Chinese censors and called for freedom of expression.

The Dalai Lama, in an interview with the same German newspaper, said he was "very impressed" with the chancellor. He said he felt a special bond with her because, having grown up in East Germany, she has also experienced communism.

"What I appreciate about Ms Merkel, is her steady engagement on human rights and religious freedom, as well as her commitment to the environment.

"Perhaps that is why she wants to see me, in spite of all the pressure from China."

He accused China of arrogance and said it would one day have to bow to international pressure on Tibet.

"It is simply China's attitude. It is the arrogance of power. Wherever I go, China protests," he said.

"I believe that in the long run, international opinion will have a positive influence on the Chinese government. The more sensitive among the country's political leaders realise that their image in the outside world depends strongly on how they treat Tibet."

The Dalai Lama has led a Tibetan government-in-exile in India since fleeing his home region in 1959 after a failed uprising.

Observers have remarked that he is maintaining a strong presence on the world stage at a time when China's human rights record is under the spotlight as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

He met with Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer last week, also amid protest from China, and will receive the "Congressional Gold medal" from US lawmakers in October. He is also expected to hold talks with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper next month.

He won the Nobel prize for his non-violent approach to relations with Beijing.

- AFP /ls

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