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Dalai dilemma for West's leaders

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  • Dalai Lama visit poses awkward political problem for leaders
  • Leaders like Brown, Merkel anxious not to offend China for economic reasons
  • Rulers want to please voters who see Dalai Lama as a peaceful campaigner
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By Robin Oakley
CNN European Political Editor
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- To the affectionate crowds that greet him around the world the Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet's Buddhists, is a revered campaigner for human rights, peace and religious understanding.

The Dalai Lama visited Prime Minister Gordon Brown in a carefully coordinated meeting.

But for the West's political leaders he increasingly poses an awkward choice.

Presidents and Prime Ministers want to show their domestic voters that they too sympathise with the oppressed and care about the victims of China's clampdown on dissent in Tibet.

But they are aware that China sees the Dalai Lama in a different light, as a so-called "traitor" who foments Tibetan separatism. And they are growing fearful of China's economic clout.

Some are bolder than others. Last October U.S. President George W. Bush presented His Holiness with America's highest civilian honor -- a Congressional Gold Medal.

Seemingly unworried by the prospect of a Chinese backlash, Bush afterwards declared: "They didn't like it of course. But I don't think it's going to severely damage relations."

In the past, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has greeted the Dalai Lama.

But there was an angry reaction from Beijing and criticisms at home that German firms could suffer. She was away in South America, but in Berlin this week the highest German official to meet him was the development minister.

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Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown did meet the Dalai Lama on Friday. But it was in a carefully calibrated context. He did not welcome him to Number 10 Downing Street, a political forum.

Instead he saw him amid a cluster of religious leaders from several faiths at Lambeth Palace, the residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Brown regarded the visitor, it was explained, not as a political figure but as a religious leader.

British lawmakers saw a different explanation for the choice of venue, recalling Brown's January visit to China and his eagerness to divert some of China's 200 billion dollar sovereign wealth fund to Britain.

Brown said then: "I believe that tens of thousands of jobs in Britain for British workers can be created from the increased co-operation between our two countries."

"Free Tibet" campaigners accused Brown of being scared of offending the Chinese.

Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for Free Tibet, told CNN: "It's very disappointing to be frank. Given that the Tibetans have been calling repeatedly for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, Gordon Brown should be acknowledging that.

"He should be treating the Dalai Lama as the undoubted political leader of the Tibetan people that he is.

"The Chinese were trying to exclude the Dalai Lama on the world stage but he seemed to be breaking through that and meeting the world leaders. So Gordon Brown's decision to meet the Dalai Lama in a purely religious setting rather than a political setting breaks that momentum at a critical time."

Campaigners are particularly annoyed at any perceived backsliding because they believe that the Olympics is putting a huge spotlight on China and that that gives other nations genuine leverage on the Chinese leadership over human rights.

They acknowledge, though, that worldwide sympathy for China over its devastating earthquake losses has not made it a good time to be pursuing a strongly political agenda.

The Dalai Lama, on an eleven-day visit to Britain, repeated his backing for China's staging of the Olympics and welcomed its economic progress which, he said, was in the interests of the Tibetan people too.

He emphasized to British lawmakers that he was not an elected political leader, merely an adviser, and stressed that he was only seeking greater autonomy for Tibet, not independence.

But some saw a gentle rebuke to Brown and others who choose to walk on diplomatic eggshells when he declared: "Economy is important but human values are more important. Human issue more important.

"Human rights and also environment issue, these are very important. So while you are making close relation in business field, business interest, there is no point to neglect or forget about principles."

Asked if he would have gone if invited to 10 Downing Street, the Dalai Lama permitted himself a wry smile and declared: "No reason to refuse."

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