A Missed Opportunity: Human Rights in Asia

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the early 1990s, at the Vienna Human Rights Conference, the Chinese government would not allow the Dalai Lama to enter the building and attend the on-going conference. Now in 2009, President Obama just did the exact same thing by refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama during his visit to Washington, DC. In Vienna, it was more understandable because China forbade it as they sat in the conference as a key player inside the United Nations. The President leads a free nation.

My reaction to the exclusion of the Dalai Lama from the Vienna Human Rights Conference was to carry out a blockade of the conference building entrance as an act of civil disobedience. The New York Times carried a picture of that demonstration. If I could find a venue to organize a similar demonstration of Obama's refusal to meet with the Dalai Lama this time, I would.

Let me say why.

The Dalai Lama represents the Tibetan people better than most governmental leaders represent theirs. Like Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, another popular leader kept out of power by her government and again backed by the Chinese. Why is it that he (or she) should suffer these kinds of slights? Should not the Nobel Peace Prize winners have anything to say about this? Is it not correct and proper that the winners of such prestigious awards be able to convene and talk about the state of peace in the world?

China is the answer. China is big. Big in dollars. Big in customers. Big in our national debt. Big in supplying guns, to Burma which itself oppresses its people with a serious determination. Big in human rights abuses. China often sends fearsome messages, in the form of military exercises and threatening diplomacy, to Taiwan. China is big in land and environmental abuse. China is big in labor abuses. Many corporations for fear of China will not do a certain kind of charity(funding of human rights groups for example) . Hillary Clinton, our Secretary of State goes to China and goes easy on their human rights abuses. She was stronger when she spoke at a human rights event in China when she was the First Lady. We human groups are told that she is after a better economic relationship with China and that she needs to go easy. The President follows suit by avoiding the Dalai Lama. The administration is coordinated when it needs dissidence.

Our President, skilled in politics, terribly bright and a former community organizer, is afraid of being seen in public shaking the hand of the Dalai Lama. This is especially ironic in light of Obama receiving this year's Nobel Peace Prize. There are vague promises that Obama can meet with the Dalai Lama later. If later, then why not now? One Nobel winner should be able to meet another Nobel winner without fear. Did not one of the President Roosevelt speak of the freedom from fear as a necessary ingredient for life in a democracy?

Thus, given this kind of timidity, hard questions need to be asked. Can President Obama ask the President of China if the Dalai Lama would be allowed back into Tibet? Take up his old residence? Calm his people? Walk familiar Lhasa streets now that he is in his older years? Hang out with his followers? Pray in monasteries that he knows? Dalai is old and it would be an appropriate gesture by both heads of state.

Tibet is the Dalai Lama's "Vatican." He is non-violent, unlike the Chinese government. Publicly acknowledging the Dalai Lama's cause would be type of change I hoped to see when I gave money to Obama's campaign. Can we advocate that the Dalai Lama be able to return to his home and join his people? Is this too radical?

Better yet, maybe the Dalai Lama ought to do what Gandhi did ...march, not to the sea, but to the mountains. His mountains, Tibet. Maybe. Maybe not. But then, nothing comes from fear, not for the President, not for the Dalai Lama and not for the Chinese -- it is time for the light.