The Ministry of Foreign Affairs came under heavy fire from Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) lawmakers on Thursday after it emerged that it had turned down a visa request for the Dalai Lama so he could deliver an address to an international conference next week.
There was much gnashing of teeth by DPP lawmakers, who wanted to know why the request was rejected and whether Taiwanese would have to wait until the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) was out of power before the Dalai Lama could visit Taiwan a fourth time.
The atmosphere at the legislature was not helped by the waffling of ministry officials, who could only mutter that this “was not a good time” and that a visit would have to wait for a “more opportune moment.”
That appears to be diplomatic speak for “when hell freezes over or there is another disaster like Typhoon Morakot.”
The government was not helped by the ministry, in the form of spokesman Steve Hsia (夏季昌), who denied that China had anything to do with the decision. Of course it did, even if as nothing more than a bogeyman. Even the former DPP administration took Beijing into account when granting the Dalai Lama a visa.
That the visa request came from an international organization did not count for much, despite the government’s oft-proclaimed desire to expand Taiwan’s role on the world stage, because the Dalai Lama was not being invited so much as a religious leader, but as a political icon. It is almost impossible to separate the Dalai Lama’s religious role from politics, even though he has given up his position as head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, but it helps if he is conducting religious lectures and ceremonies.
The Dalai Lama’s three visits to Taiwan have all centered on religion. His first trip, in 1997, came at the invitation of the Chinese Buddhism Association for a series of lectures, even though he met with then-president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) and vice president Lien Chan (連戰). However, the political side of those meetings was downplayed, with Lien seeing the Dalai Lama at a hotel and Lee meeting him at the foreign ministry’s Guest House rather than at the Presidential Office. A planned speech to the Legislative Yuan was also canceled.
The Lee government was unwilling to consider a second trip and a visit planned for 1998 was called off.
The focus of the Dalai Lama’s second visit in 2001, when the DPP was in power, was religious lectures, although he was met at the airport by government officials and lawmakers. He also met then-president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) and vice president Annette Lu (呂秀蓮).
His 2009 visit, made at the invitation of seven DPP mayors and county commissioners, was to provide succor to victims and survivors of Morakot.
Requests for visas for trips at the invitation of non-religious groups, such as one by the Association of Taiwan Journalists in 2009, have been rejected.
It is truly regrettable that the International Federation of Business and Professional Women will not be able to hear the Dalai Lama speak. However, one has to wonder if the group has been made a pawn in the never-ending blue-green political battle, given that the conference is being organized by the federation’s local chapter, which is headed by Lu. She could not have really expected the government to grant the Dalai Lama a visa; it was not even a long shot.
If this episode is to be judged as yet another piece of political theater, the foreign ministry’s performance has been abysmal. The federation made its visa request, in the form of letters from its international president on Aug. 28 and Sept. 10, yet the ministry did not issue a reply until Nov. 16, just two weeks before the opening of the conference.
The Dalai Lama should be able to visit Taiwan no matter who invites him. The sad truth is no matter which party is in power, the odds are better of him being given a visa if the trip is for religious reasons.
This administration has done the nation a great disservice with its disingenuousness and hiding behind an excuse of “waiting for a more opportune time.”