Obama Meets Dalai Lama

President Obama offered the Dalai Lama "strong support" for the preservation of his homeland's identity, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Thursday. Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama Thursday was kept low key amid Chinese anger. Beijing regards the Tibetan spiritual leader as a separatist.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Strongly dissatisfied, those words today from the Chinese government describing its opposition to a meeting at the White House. President Obama's guest at that meeting: the Dalai Lama. There was no fanfare and the two men did not appear together in public. The White House is trying to limit Chinese anger at a time of already tense relations.

NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The day was carefully choreographed. The president and the Dalai Lama met in the Map Room, not the Oval Office. And only an official photographer captured it on film. Still, the Dalai Lama's envoy in Washington, Lodi Gyari, told NPR that even this private affair was important for Tibetans.

Mr. LODI GYARI (Envoy of Dalai Lama, Washington): It was wonderful meeting. I mean, His Holiness has had a, you know, wonderful meetings with the previous presidents. But I really felt that there was a very strong personal chemistry between the two.

KELEMEN: Gyari says he sat in on all the previous White House meetings, going back to President George H. W. Bush. This one between two Nobel Peace Prize laureates lasted longer than usual, about an hour, he said. He added that the president clearly indicated support for the Dalai Lama's so-called middle way approach to resolving the Tibetan issue with the People's Republic of China.

Mr. GYARI: His thought seeking independence or separation from PRC. At the same time, the Chinese government must provide the Tibetan people the opportunity to have genuine, original autonomy. So I think that was very important. In fact, I haven't seen any formal White House statement in the past where they have explicitly endorsed His Holiness' position in resolving the issue.

KELEMEN: And today's White House statement did just that. This was a turnaround from last year when the Dalai Lama came to Washington and the president decided not to meet him. President Obama didn't want to do anything that would complicate his trip to China last November. Today's meeting also comes at a delicate moment, though White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has been trying to downplay that.

Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (White House Press Secretary): Chinese officials have known about this and, you know, their reaction is their reaction. Again, I think a mature relationship between two countries allows you to do things like working on non-proliferation on North Korea or working on a response to the global economic crisis, but also have disagreements.

(Soundbite of music)

KELEMEN: Outside the White House today, several hundred supporters of the Dalai Lama came out to celebrate a meeting they called long overdue. Tenzin Nanglo(ph) of Tibetan Women's Association says the White House visit was a victory for the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Ms. TENZIN NANGLO (Tibetan Women's Association): It shows where he stands in terms of Tibet and Tibetan issue. So, it's like a victory. That's why we are having a dance here with all the Tibetans, especially, like, older ladies, even though their knees are hurting, they are still dancing. So, it's a victory.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing in foreign language)

KELEMEN: Many in the crowd held flags and photos of the last time the Dalai Lama met with then-Senator Barack Obama. One man said he's expecting a lot from the Nobel Peace Prize winning president on the issue of Tibet.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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