Feature: Norway's Dalai Lama dilemma

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The Dalai Lama visiting Oslo in 2005. Photo: Håkon Mosvsvold Larsen/Scanpix
13:19 CEST+02:00
A planned visit by the Dalai Lama has Oslo torn between its will to warm up frozen ties with China and warnings from the public not to compromise its stance on human rights, writes AFP's Pierre-Henry Deshayes.

Rather than rolling out the red carpet, the Norwegian authorities seem more inclined to make the Tibetan spiritual leader enter through the back door when he arrives on May 7th for the 25th anniversary of his Nobel Peace Prize.

"We must be aware that, if the Norwegian authorities receive the Dalai Lama, it will be more complicated to normalize our relations," Foreign Minister Børge Brende said in parliament this week.

The attribution of the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010 revived the long-forgotten anger that Beijing expressed when the Tibetan leader received it, bringing bilateral relations to a new low and prompting Chinese leaders to freeze high-level contacts with their Norwegian counterparts.

Oslo's attempts to normalize relations with the world's second largest economy have since proven fruitless, as China wants to set an example to deter other countries.

On Wednesday, China issued a new warning. 

"We are firmly opposed to other countries providing a platform for the Dalai Lama's activities that aim at dividing China, and we oppose foreign leaders meeting him," foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said.

In order to prevent any escalation, the president of the Norwegian parliament Olemic Thommessen -- second only to the king in Norway's protocol -- said he would not meet the Tibetan leader, who was received by Barack Obama last month in the White House.

"Our possibilities to promote these values that are so dear to us don't benefit from maintaining such a hopeless situation as the one we find ourselves in now," Thommessen told public broadcaster NRK on Tuesday. 

Brende said that no decision had been made regarding a possible meeting between a member of the government and the Dalai Lama, with the ministry stressing that the visit is "private".

The fact that Brende and Thommessen are former leaders of the parliamentary committee for Tibet, the latter as recently as last year, added to the controversy.  

As Norway prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of its constitution on May 17th, several commentators accused its leaders of betraying Norwegian values and letting China dictate their policy.   

"The contrast is huge with all the beautiful words the president of the Parliament and others use in this jubilee year," said Harald Stanghelle, editor-in-chief of Aftenposten, the most respected Norwegian daily, who criticized the authorities' "cowardice".  

"Words like democracy and independence, freedom of speech and human rights. The announced visit of the Tibetan (leader) proves that these are but empty words."

According to a survey published by the Verdens Gang tabloid, 60 percent of Norwegians think that the government should meet the Dalai Lama and 50 percent said it would be "cowardly" not to do it out of consideration for Beijing.

Only 20 percent supported Thommessen's stand.

"I don't feel guilty of being cowardly or pathetic," Thommessen said. "It is just about assuming one's responsibilities to ... actually improve the chances to work for the values, especially human rights, that we hold dear."

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The current chairman of the parliamentary committee for Tibet, Ketil Kjenseth, lamented the authorities' efforts to soothe Beijing.

"In Tibet, the situation in terms of human rights hasn't changed an inch, but our economic dependence on China got in the way," he told AFP, adding that he was determined to receive the Dalai Lama in parliament.

Despite the freeze in diplomatic relations, bilateral trade climbed to a record high last year. 

Highlighting the importance of symbols in diplomatic protocol, Kjenseth has not been authorized to hold the meeting in the room he initially suggested. 

Among the solutions suggested by the presidency was a room in the basement. It has also been suggested that the Dalai Lama not use the main entrance to the building, an idea that has brewed up a storm among critics.

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