WASHINGTON – Risking China’s ire, official Washington heaped praise on the Dalai Lama on Wednesday, with President Bush bestowing on him one of the nation’s highest civilian honors – the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor.
It was the first time since the Tibetan spiritual leader fled into exile in 1959 that a sitting U.S. president met with him in public, and the solemn ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda marked an escalation of support for him from American political leaders.
“Americans cannot look to the plight of the religiously oppressed and close our eyes or turn away,” Bush said to an overflow audience of lawmakers and well-wishers. “And that is why I will continue to urge the leaders of China to welcome the Dalai Lama to China. They will find this good man to be a man of peace and reconciliation.”
The Dalai Lama fled his native Tibet when the Chinese government sent in troops to quell a rebellion. Many people consider him Tibet’s rightful political and spiritual leader, although he does not advocate independence.
“I am seeking a meaningful autonomy for the Tibetan people within the People’s Republic of China,” the Dalai Lama said.
In the Rotunda, the Dalai Lama’s manner was cheerful, and he joked that his decision to speak in English was “something like my English examination in front of dignitaries and scholars.”
“The consistency of American support for Tibet has not gone unnoticed in China. Where this has caused some tension in the U.S.-China relations I feel a sense of regret,” he said.
The Chinese government sent multiple warnings they would consider any recognition of the Dalai Lama to be a provocation.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who sponsored the resolution awarding the medal, said Congress was not seeking to send a message to China, other than “that this man is held in the highest esteem.”