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Dalai Lama Receives Congressional Gold Medal

17 October 2007

Congressman says leader seeks Tibetan autonomy in China, not independence

Washington -- By presenting Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, with the Congressional Gold Medal, the U.S. Congress is recognizing his role as one of the world’s foremost moral and religious figures, who is using his leadership role to advocate peacefully for the cultural autonomy of the Tibetan people within China.

President Bush attended the awards ceremony October 17 at the U.S. Capitol, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to meet the Dalai Lama in public.  The ceremony is “a special one that we have in American traditions," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said October 16. (See transcript.)

Representative Tom Lantos (Democrat from California), who chairs the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, told USINFO the Dalai Lama’s “difficult but wise position … has allowed those of us who support rights of the Tibetan people, but also support positive engagement with China, to work constructively with Beijing on the issue of Tibet.”

The Chinese government has insisted that the Dalai Lama is seeking Tibet’s independence from China.  “That is simply untrue,” Lantos said. “He seeks genuine autonomy within the borders of China, and in accordance with the Chinese Constitution.”

The decision to bestow the medal, which is the highest civilian award that the U.S. Congress can give, has been condemned by the Chinese government.  However, Lantos said it is “both the right thing and the smart thing to do,” and it provides China’s leaders “a golden opportunity to prove that they are prepared to deal on a sincere basis with His Holiness and to respect the rights of the Tibetan people” on the eve of China’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics.

“It is time for China to take the responsible next move.  I call on our Beijing friends to invite the Dalai Lama to visit China early next year to resume talks about the status of Tibet,” Lantos said.

A House Foreign Affairs Committee staff member, speaking to USINFO on background, said it has taken decades for the Dalai Lama to achieve public recognition by U.S. officials, who had kept their distance from him for fear of upsetting the Chinese government.  The Congressional Human Rights Caucus, she said, was the first to give him a public forum in 1987, at a time when President Reagan and officials at the State Department would not see him.

Lantos, who was a founding co-chairman of the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983, was one of the main forces behind awarding the Dalai Lama the Congressional Gold Medal.  He said he hopes the award will “underscore to the Chinese authorities that this is a man who is taken very seriously,” the staff member said.  The Dalai Lama is not promoting Tibetan independence, but rather the “cultural autonomy for the people within the People’s Republic of China and under their constitution.”  He also has been outspoken in his support for peaceful pro-democracy protests in Burma.

President Bush signed legislation (Public Law 109-287) on September 27, 2006, to bestow the medal to recognize the Dalai Lama’s “many enduring and outstanding contributions to peace, non-violence, human rights and religious understanding,” according to the text of the legislation.

“Over the last 20 years, the Beijing government has changed not one iota in its stance toward the Dalai Lama or toward the cause of Tibetan autonomy,” the congressional staff member said.  “The one thing that might be different now is that since China is hosting the Olympics in 2008 and is in the world spotlight, it has an opportunity to show that it has some concern for human rights” not only with regard to Tibet, but also in other areas such as the Darfur region of Sudan.

“[T]here is … a whole range of things that China could be doing to enhance its image in the eyes of the world as the Olympics approach,” the staff member said.

Legislation to award a Congressional Gold Medal must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the membership of both the House of Representatives and the Senate before the congressional committees can consider it.  After the legislation is passed by both houses, the medal is forged specially by the U.S. Mint, which creates a unique design for each award. 

The medal first was awarded in 1776 by the Second Continental Congress to then-General George Washington during the U.S. War of Independence.  Among the award’s non-American recipients are Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Russian dissident and Israeli Cabinet member Natan Sharansky.

For related stories, see The United States and China.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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