Dalai Lama Visa Decision a Dilemma For Taiwan

For The Diplomat, Ketty Chen and Julia Famularo call out the administration of Taiwanese president Ma Ying-Jeou for denying the Dalai Lama a visa to attend a recent conference held in Taipei by women’s group BPW International:

Ma Ying-jeou’s position regarding the Dalai Lama has shifted over the years. As Taipei Mayor, Ma proclaimed that the Buddhist leader was welcome to visit the capital whenever he wished. Since his inauguration as President, however, the government has denied the Dalai Lama visas on several occasions. In December 2008, his administration refused a visit from the Dalai Lama, stating that the timing was inappropriate. In 2009, the Dalai Lama was allowed to visit Taiwan to comfort and pray for the victims of Typhoon Morakot, which devastated southern Taiwan and caused at least 550 deaths. President Ma nevertheless declined to meet with the religious leader, who insisted that his trip was strictly a non-political, humanitarian mission.

In President Ma’s post-reelection inaugural address last May, he discussed his plan to further cooperation between China and Taiwan. Ma stated at the time: “In the next four years, the two sides of the strait have to open up new areas of cooperation and continue working to consolidate peace, expand prosperity and deepen mutual trust. We also hope that civic groups on both sides of the Taiwan Strait will have more opportunities for exchanges and dialogue focusing on such areas as democracy, human rights, rule of law and civil society, to create an environment more conducive to peaceful cross-strait development.”

Civic groups can indeed play a crucial role in promoting human rights and democracy, particularly when China engages in retaliatory measures against governments whose leaders meet with the Dalai Lama. By denying a visa to the Tibetan spiritual leader, President Ma missed a valuable opportunity: organizations such as BPW International provide an excellent mechanism for Taiwan to demonstrate its commitment to human rights, democracy, and religious freedom. Nevertheless, it is equally important for world leaders to signal to Beijing that they refuse to submit to political or economic bullying. Just as China has its “core interests,” democratic countries must also stand by their own core values and interests as well.

The Taiwanese government may have refused to issue the Dalai Lama a visa last month, but the Taiwanese legislature on Thursday passed an opposition resolution to invite the Tibetan spiritual leader for a visit in the future:

“The Dalai Lama is a very respected religious leader. It harms Taiwan’s reputation as a democracy when we refuse to issue him a visa,” said Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Chen Chi-mai (陳其邁), who proposed the resolution. “I therefore suggest that the committee should adopt a resolution sincerely welcoming him.”

Asked for her opinion, Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs Commission Minister Lo Ying-hsueh (羅瑩雪) said she would “be happy to see [the invitation] come true.”

“The Dalai Lama is a respectable religious leader and a learned monk,” Lo said. “The commission would look forward to a visit, but the national security agencies may have another opinion.”

However, some Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, such as Chiu Wen-yen (邱文彥), disagreed with the wording of the proposal, which condemns the Chinese government’s repression of the Tibetan independence movement and says the Dalai Lama is welcome to visit Taiwan “at any time, under any status, through any means.”