Visit of Kirti Rinpoche to Brussels marked by Chinese pressure on Belgian officials

Kirti Rinpoche, who lives in exile in India, arrived in Europe on a visit hosted by ICT and spoke to the major rally in Brussels on Sunday bringing together thousands of Tibetans and their supporters from across Europe.

Kirti Rinpoche’s visit to Belgium (6-11 March) coincided with hardline statements made by the governor of Ngaba prefecture accusing Kirti monks of Œcollaboration with lamas in exile to Œincite self-immolations. The wave of self-immolations across Tibet began at Kirti monastery in February 2009, and nearly a third of the 107 Tibetans who have set fire to themselves are from Ngaba (Chinese: Aba).

Kirti Rinpoche said: “The Chinese authorities are making baseless accusations without evidence instead of addressing legitimate Tibetan grievances. The self-immolations emerge from the unbearable oppression imposed by the Chinese authorities and their policies undermining Tibetan religion and culture. Not only do they seek to repress the truth in Tibet, but they are seeking to do so even in Belgium, where they pressured officials not to meet me despite the fact that it is my understanding that freedom of expression is one of the most cherished European values. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, dialogue is the only way to solve the issue of Tibet. And since truth is on our side, I am ready to discuss the crisis in Tibet face to face with the Chinese ambassador during my travels in Europe.”

Following Kirti Rinpoche’s arrival in Brussels on March 6, the Chinese embassy contacted Belgian government officials to complain about senior officials from the Foreign Ministry and the President of the Senate meeting Kirti Rinpoche. As a result a scheduled appointment at the Foreign Ministry with the Head of the Asia Desk Ms Jehanne Roccas was changed at the last minute to a meeting nearby with a retired ambassador, and the President of the Senate, Ms. Sabine de Bethune, cancelled a meeting with Kirti Rinpoche on Friday. Kirti Rinpoche met instead the President of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr  Karl Vanlouwe.

Members of the External Action Service of the European Union did not cancel meetings with Kirti Rinpoche, despite some pressure to do so. In 2007, the Belgian government asked the Dalai Lama to cancel a long-planned visit to Brussels in response to pressure from Beijing, following the postponement under similarly controversial circumstances of an earlier visit meant to take place in June 2005.

Vincent Metten, EU Policy Director for the International Campaign for Tibet, which is hosting Kirti Rinpoche’s visit, said: “China’s strong-arm tactics in seeking to suppress legitimate discussion about the crisis in Tibet are well-known, but it is a shame that the government in Belgium, which is a founding member of the European Union, acquiesced. The Belgian government must be mindful of the message this sends to the Tibetan people as the scale of the tragedy in Tibet continues to unfold. The level of Chinese pressure on Belgium is shows how seriously the Chinese government takes the influence of Kirti Rinpoche and what he has to say, as well as its continued intolerance of the support of foreign governments for human rights and the Tibet issue.

Fortunately Kirti Rinpoche’s message has been conveyed strongly to press and politicians. This included a testimony given at the European Parliament’s Sub–Committee on Human Rights on March the 7th (available here) and in Geneva last week at the United Nations.

Kirti Rinpoche, the head lama of Kirti monastery in Tibet, its sister monastery in India and 40 associated monasteries, has lived in India since he followed the Dalai Lama into exile at the time of the Tibet Uprising in March, 1959. In the 1980s he returned to Tibet and China, where he met many Chinese dignitaries and the former Panchen Lama, who was at the time the most senior religious leader remaining in Tibet and the head of the Tibetan government.

At a press conference in Brussels on March 8, Kirti Rinpoche presented new evidence of the oppression at Kirti monastery in Ngaba (Chinese: Aba), which is one of the most important and influential in Tibet. He said that the Red Army first came to Ngaba in 1935, during Mao¹s Long March, and that this was the first time Tibetans had known starvation. He also spoke about the crackdown against Tibetan protests in March, 2008, and the beginning of the self-immolations in 2009. He raised the case of the Tibetan monk Lobsang Kunchok, who was given a suspended death sentence for apparently “inciting” self-immolations. Kirti Rinpoche said that the charges were baseless and that he feared for his life, and the lives of others sentenced under the aggressive new drive to criminalise the self-immolations.