Sri Lanka’s recent elections may have brought to power a government more willing to stray from its longstanding partnership with China -- but that does not mean newly elected President Maithripala Sirisena is prepared to provoke Beijing by extending a historic invitation to the Dalai Lama. Despite a push by Buddhist monks to invite the Tibetan spiritual leader, Sri Lanka’s government indicated this week that it would not likely allow the Dalai Lama to make his first visit to the majority-Buddhist island nation.
A top Foreign Ministry official in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, said that even if Buddhist monks extend an invitation, the government might not grant a visa. "The Dalai Lama is very important. But the close relationship with China is more important,” the official told Reuters on Thursday.
The stance pleased the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which said on Friday that it appreciated Colombo’s position. “Sri Lanka is a traditional friendly neighbor of China's, and the China-Sri Lanka relationship has always developed smoothly,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying during a briefing in Beijing. “Sri Lanka fully understands and respects China's concerns on the relevant issue.”
The Dalai Lama, now 79, has lived in exile in India since a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. China has long denounced him as a dangerous separatist and has used its geopolitical clout to prevent countries around the world from hosting him. This stance has led to diplomatic tensions with countries that have chosen to allow him to visit. Beijing engaged in a diplomatic row with the British after Prime Minister David Cameron hosted the Tibetan leader in 2012, and would only resume relations after he said he did not plan to meet with the Dalai Lama again in the near future. Similar tensions were sparked when President Barack Obama met with the Tibetan in 2014.
The recent election defeat of Sri Lanka’s former strongly pro-China government had led some to hope the new leadership would be more amenable to the idea, given its diplomatic shift from China toward India, which has hosted the Dalai Lama for 56 years. A group of high-ranking Buddhist monks from Sri Lanka extended the invitation to him during a religious gathering in New Delhi late last month.
"He told us that all others in the world -- Christians, Hindus and Muslims -- treat him well. But his own Buddhist brotherhood does not treat him well," senior monk Banagala Upatissa told Reuters. "We felt saddened and disturbed and invited him to visit Sri Lanka. I hope to discuss with the government to find a solution for this. Without antagonizing China, we are trying to get him a visa as an ordinary monk and not as a state official."
Nearly 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is Buddhist and the country is home to some of the religion’s most sacred sites, including temples housing relics of the Buddha. The location of the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment, is a major pilgrimage site. According to Upatissa, the Dalai Lama said he’d wanted to visit the site since childhood.
Sri Lanka’s deep ties with China might make that impossible, even with its leadership change. While Sirisena, who was elected in January in a tight race with then-President Mahindra Rajapaksa, has shown signs of loosening ties with China, the South Asian state is still heavily dependent on China for development and investment loans. Since the end of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war in 2009, China has invested millions of dollars into the country’s infrastructure and pledged a further $1 billion in new aid last week, in the most notable recent reminder of the economic significance of the partnership for Colombo.