Botswana calls China’s bluff over the Dalai Lama

By Mpho Tebele

Gaborone – The Government of Botswana this week reacted sharply to a warning issued by the Chinese government that it should not host exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, in August.

Gaborone shot a broadside at Beijing saying it should respect the fact that the Southern African country values freedom of speech and ideas.

China, a major investor in the Botswana economy, is livid about the impending visit saying it hoped Botswana could make the “correct” decision about the trip.

But Botswana is unapologetic and remains unfazed despite pleas and threats by Chinese officials calling on the Southern African country to rescind its decision.

Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi told Parliament this week that a delegation from the Chinese embassy in Gaborone held a two-hour meeting with him in an effort to convince him to reverse government’s decision to allow the Dalai Lama to visit Botswana.

According to Venson-Moitoi, the Chinese delegation also held one-on-one meetings with Members of Parliament and traditional leaders. She added that this included President Ian Khama’s uncle, Chief Sediegeng Kgamane who took over as regent of the Bangwato tribe when President Khama, who is the Paramount Chief of the same tribe, joined politics in 1998.

“As government, we have met with the Chinese who have registered their displeasure, but we are failing to understand what their issue is. Our view is that he is a man of peace and we have done our security checks through Interpol. He does not pose any threat,” said Venson-Moitoi.

“Our immigration laws, as supported by our citizens, allow for anyone who does not pose a threat to come in. This country belongs to Batswana and we are not going to allow favours from other countries to dictate who comes here and who does not.”

Venson-Moitoi further stated: “We are not going to sell our country because of blanket donations from China.  Even in my constituency, there are houses built by the Chinese community, but I will not allow that to influence this position.”

She said China should not infringe on Botswana’s affairs by seeking to dictate who should be granted a visa and who should not be, in the same manner that Botswana respected China’s demands for non-interference in its affairs.

Venson-Moitoi’s address to Parliament followed a statement issued by the government detailing how Gaborone is unfazed by Beijing’s alleged threat.

“The Government of Botswana has followed the recent local media commentary on the planned private visit by the Dalai Lama to attend a three day conference entitled ‘Botho/Ubuntu: A Dialogue with the Dalai Lama Spirituality, Science and Humanity’, scheduled for 17-19 August 2017,” reads a government statement.

“As indicated in our press release of 14 July 2017, while we in Botswana enjoy the freedom to criticise one another, let us not allow ourselves to be manipulated into betraying the fundamental principles that are the foundation of free peoples everywhere.”

The Government of Botswana said it was disappointed that some Botswana journalists, editors, academics and political leaders were recently hosted “by the Government of the People’s Republic of China in efforts towards thwarting the visit of the Dalai Lama to the Republic of Botswana.”

“We find it hypocritical that some people who have sworn to uphold issues such as those of freedom of speech, promotion of the rule of law and human rights have been used by others to undermine our unity and democracy, especially those who in their own countries view these as a threat to their existence,” reads the statement.

“It is hypocritical to use our values of freedom to advance or justify their suppression of the same elsewhere.

“It remains our considered position that principles of freedom, democracy and good governance will be our guiding light in this regard, as well as the observance of fundamental human rights and dignity for all,” the statement says.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement recently that China opposes any foreign official meetings with the Dalai Lama in any form.

“We hope the relevant country can clearly recognise the essence of which the Dalai Lama is, earnestly respect China’s core concerns, and make the correct decision on this issue,” Geng said.

Newly appointed Chinese Ambassador to South Africa, Lin Songtian, also weighed in and warned a Botswana Friendship Delegation that visited China last week against what he called harming “such a true friend and reliable development partner in China by challenging the core interests of China and the dignity of the 1.3 billion Chinese people”.

Lin, who is also the secretary-general of the Chinese Follow-up Committee on Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, said instead of being a purely religious figure, the 14th Dalai Lama has been a head of a well-organised political group whose goal is to seek Tibetan independence.

The Dalai Lama, who fled from Tibet into exile in India in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule, has long been at loggerheads with China, which brands him a dangerous separatist. The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, says he seeks greater rights, including religious freedom and genuine autonomy for Tibet.

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