Dalai Lama's Absence Looms Large At Tutu's Birthday The Dalai Lama was forced to cancel a trip to South Africa this week for Desmond Tutu's 80th birthday celebration because he was not issued a visa. The news infuriated Tutu, who accused the government of being afraid to offend China, South Africa's largest trade partner.
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Dalai Lama's Absence Looms Large At Tutu's Birthday

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Dalai Lama's Absence Looms Large At Tutu's Birthday

Dalai Lama's Absence Looms Large At Tutu's Birthday

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Archbishop Desmond Tutu celebrated his 80th birthday yesterday at home in South Africa. People came from far and wide to honor him. But one person missing was fellow Nobel Laureate, the Dalai Lama. He couldn't get a visa to attend. As Anders Kelto reports, the cause may have been economics.


ANDERS KELTO: In downtown Cape Town, worshipers gather for a morning mass at St. George's Cathedral. During apartheid, the massive stone church was an epicenter of resistance against the government. A service is being held to honor the man who led that resistance, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.


CONGREGATION: (Singing) Happy Birthday to you.

DR. BRYAN WATTS, DIRECTOR, COLLEGE OF WILLIAM AND MARY: But his birthday celebrations, which have included visits from foreign dignitaries and even a serenading from rock star Bono, have largely been overshadowed by the Dalai Lama's absence. The Tibetan leader is one of Tutu's closest friends, and the news that he was not granted a visa sent the Archbishop into a tirade against the government at a press conference earlier this week.

DESMOND TUTU: Quite unbelievable, the discourtesy that they have shown this government - our government - is worse than the apartheid government.

KELTO: He also issued a stern warning to the country's ruling political party, the African National Congress.

TUTU: I am warning you, one day we will start praying for the defeat of the ANC government.

KELTO: The government still hasn't explained why it did not respond to the Dalai Lama's application. President Jacob Zuma denied obstructing the process, and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said a visa was about to be granted.

But Tom Wheeler, a former ambassador who works for the South African Institute of International Affairs, says the government simply didn't want to anger China.

TOM WHEELER: There was a concern about what the reaction in China would be.

KELTO: China is South Africa's largest trade partner and an important source of foreign investments. The Chinese government sees the Dalai Lama as an enemy and a leader of the Tibetan separatist movement, and they have publicly discouraged foreign leaders from meeting with him. But Wheeler says many of China's economic partners have ignored China's warnings and allowed the Dalai Lama to enter their countries without consequence. And he says there are signs that South Africa's concerns were unfounded.

WHEELER: We've been told by Deputy President Motlanthe that when he visited China last week, the issue was not raised with him. So I think there was perhaps an unjustified concern.

KELTO: Now, many South Africans are concerned about the damage that's been done to their country's reputation. Hennie Van Vuuren is the director of the Institute for Security Studies, a think tank focused on human rights and foreign policy.

HENNIE VAN VUUREN: I don't think that South Africa has done its image in the international community any good. Are we pandering to the point that it is becoming deeply embarrassing? That we want to bend over backwards to do anything that would please China.

KELTO: And he says that, by choosing economic interests over human rights, the ruling political party has acted against South Africa's core values and has done a disservice to those who fought for freedom under apartheid.

It's the ruling party that helped lead a struggle to free South Africa, and enshrine the values of freedom within the South African constitution. The current leadership of South Africa seems to be doing much to undermine the legacy of some of those great women and men.


KELTO: Back at St. George's, a group of protesters gathers outside the church. Greg Andrews holds a large banner that says, Sorry, Dalai Lama. He says he was planning to attend the Buddhist leader's speech.

GREG ANDREWS: I mean I've had the privilege of seeing him speak in other places, and obviously it would have been wonderful to hear him here.

KELTO: For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto in Cape Town.

SIMON: The Dalai Lama did speak with Archbishop Tutu today by video link. I can see your face, he said. And looking at Mr. Tutu through a monitor, I really feel very, very happy. He told Bishop Tutu to send him an invitation to his 90th birthday. Quote, "Then we can test your government."

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