Politicians tiptoeing around Dalai Lama visit

New Zealand political leaders appear to be tiptoeing around the visit of the Dalai Lama - in stark contrast to his tour of Australia where politicians are ignoring pressure from China to shun the Tibetan leader.

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters is to meet the Dalai Lama in a private capacity, rather than in his role as Foreign Affairs Minister.

They would meet at Parliament on Tuesday next week, but the meeting would not be held in Mr Peters' Beehive ministerial office, his spokesman said.

Acting Prime Minister Michael Cullen yesterday said he would not be surprised if the Chinese Embassy made representations on the matter, but the Government would make up its own mind on what it did.

Prime Minister Helen Clark has not said whether she would meet the Dalai Lama, prompting Green MP Keith Locke to say she should stop equivocating on the matter.

Mr Locke questioned Dr Cullen in Parliament on Tuesday on whether the Prime Minister would meet the Tibetan leader. Dr Cullen replied that her programme for next week was "under consideration".

Mr Locke said yesterday the delay was not acceptable "and is an insult to a visitor of the Dalai Lama's international standing".

"The Prime Minister has known for two years when the Dalai Lama would be in Wellington and that he would like to meet her. We can only assume the delay in confirming the meeting is due to pressure from the Chinese Government," Mr Locke said.

Chair of the Dalai Lama Visit Trust, Thuten Kesang, said Mr Peters had arranged a meeting with the exiled religious leader.

"Currently we have the Foreign Minister meeting with him on Tuesday when we are in Wellington," he said.

He thought China was pressuring New Zealand leaders not to see the Dalai Lama. "Every time he visits here all the politicians have met with him. This is the first time I am having a lot of difficulty for the Prime Minister to pin down her yes or no. I personally believe it is the Chinese pressure.

"Our politicians should have the guts to make up their own minds."

China, which rules Tibet with military force, regards the Dalai Lama as a troublemaker bent on promoting Tibetan independence and has used diplomatic pressure to discourage governments from meeting him or otherwise showing him support.

Beijing is also in the box seat with Wellington as New Zealand is pushing for a free trade deal with China.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, said Beijing was firmly against any country that allows the Dalai Lama to visit to push for Tibetan independence.

"Dalai Lama is not a simple religious figure, he is a political exile engaged in 'splittist' activities for a long time," Qin said at a news briefing in Beijing.

Australia's Foreign Minister yesterday rejected this description, and said the Tibetan spiritual leader would always be welcome to visit the country.

Helen Clark met the Dalai Lama twice while Opposition leader. Last time the spiritual leader visited, he met then Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton because Helen Clark was out of the country.

Opposition leader John Key was yet to decide whether he would meet the Dalai Lama, a spokesman said, but National's foreign affairs spokesman Murray McCully would meet him.

In Australia, pro-Tibetan activists urged Prime Minister John Howard to meet the Dalai Lama, despite Chinese warnings against Australian leaders meeting him.

Mr Howard initially would not say whether he would meet the Dalai Lama, saying only that he was checking his diary. But later he and Australian Opposition leader Kevin Rudd said they would ignore pressure from Beijing's Canberra embassy not to meet the Tibetan leader.

Mr Locke said Helen Clark needed to be "at least as strong as John Howard".

"Our country can't be seen to put good economic relations with China and a free trade deal ahead of the human rights of the Tibetan people," Mr Locke said.

Reports from Amnesty and other groups showed Tibetan monks were still being imprisoned for observing their religion and expressing their opinions.

The 14th Dalai Lama

* Age 71, the fifth of sixteen children of a Tibetan farming family.

* Proclaimed the tulku (rebirth) of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of 2. At 15, enthroned as Tibet's Head of State.

* Fled to India in 1959 and helped set up the Tibetan Government in exile, seeking to preserve Tibetan culture and education among the thousands of refugees.

* Won Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

- NZPA

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