South Africa accused of banning the Dalai Lama


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The Independent Online

The South African government has found itself embroiled in an embarrassing row after it was accused of trying to block Archbishop Desmond Tutu's invitation to the Dalai Lama to visit the country for his 80th birthday party.

The Tibetan spiritual leader was feted in the Rainbow Nation in 1996 during a visit with the then-president, Nelson Mandela, but pressure from China has since prevented a repeat trip. Beijing accuses the 1989 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize of being a "separatist leader" and wields its immense diplomatic and commercial power to deter countries and governments from meeting with him. President Jacob Zuma was roundly criticised two years ago when his administration refused the Dalai Lama entry for a conference of Nobel laureates.

At the time, Archbishop Tutu accused the government of "shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure". Now the cleric's friends say that the delay in issuing a visa for the celebrations on 7 October was causing him "deep anxiety". Officials from the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre said they had sent four letters to South Africa's minister of international affairs without receiving any reply.

A spokesman for South Africa's foreign-affairs department told the Associated Press that there was no pressure to block the Dalai Lama's visit and that a completed visa application was received only on 20 September.

It would be subjected to "normal visa-application processes", the official added. That would typically mean up to seven days in New Delhi, India, where the application was lodged.

Sonam Tenzing, the Dalai Lama's representative for Africa, said this was "totally incorrect" and that the application had been made on 29 August after a previous attempt was rejected on the grounds that it was too early to apply.

Chinese officials have so far refrained from commenting on the row. But a meeting between President Felipe Calderon of Mexico and the Dalai Lama this month drew a fierce response from Beijing, which said it "grossly interfered with China's internal affairs, hurt the feelings of the Chinese people and harmed Chinese-Mexican relations".