Obama breaks precedent by not meeting Dalai Lama

WASHINGTON Mon Oct 5, 2009 6:34pm EDT

The Dalai Lama waves as he arrives at his hotel in Washington, October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Dalai Lama waves as he arrives at his hotel in Washington, October 5, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama will not meet the Dalai Lama during his five-day trip to the U.S. capital beginning on Monday, the first time in 18 years the exiled Tibetan leader has visited Washington without seeing the president.

Obama instead intends to wait until after his November summit with Chinese leader Hu Jintao before meeting the Dalai Lama, possibly sometime in December, officials said.

The decision to break precedent and delay any meeting was conveyed to the Dalai Lama last month when Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and State Department Undersecretary Maria Otero traveled to Dharamsala, India, to explain the administration's approach on Tibet.

"The administration, I think, is aware it is breaking a precedent ... but clearly they have their reasons for that and he (the Dalai Lama) agreed with the decision that was made," said Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Tibetan Buddhist leader.

Saunders said the Dalai Lama and the Obama administration had agreed to a meeting after the U.S.-Chinese summit. The session is "likely to be before the end of the year, probably in December," she said.

U.S. officials would only say a meeting would take place soon after the summit.

China sent its troops into Tibet in 1950 and the Dalai Lama fled to India a few years later to establish a government in exile. Negotiations between China and the Dalai Lama's envoys were suspended last year, provoking violence in Tibet.

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the Obama administration, in an effort to gain favor with China, put pressure on Tibetan representatives to postpone a meeting between Obama and the Dalai Lama until after the summit.

DALAI LAMA AGREES

Saunders said the Dalai Lama actually agreed with the Obama administration's decision and believed it was important the United States and China develop a good relationship.

The Dalai Lama believes "it is important for it to be strong, it's important for it to be cooperative," she said.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "We have made clear that the president absolutely intends to meet the Dalai Lama."

"President Obama has long been a strong and consistent supporter of greater cultural, linguistic and religious rights and autonomy for the Tibetan people," the official added.

"The administration is actively working to encourage a resumption of dialogue between the Chinese government and Dalai Lama's representatives in the hopes of making substantive and enduring progress," he said.

Asked if the decision not to meet the Dalai Lama signaled a change in U.S. policy toward China and Tibet, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said: "I wouldn't necessarily read ... anything into the decision beyond what it is."

Kelly said the administration wanted to engage China as an important global player but would not "downplay" disagreements over human rights, religious freedom and freedom of expression.

He said Otero, the undersecretary of state for democracy and global affairs who was named last week as special coordinator on Tibetan issues, would meet with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington.

(Additional reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)