The Dalai Lama will travel to Oslo next month to mark 25 years since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. On Wednesday the Parliamentary President and a long-time supporter of Tibet, Olemic Thommessen, said he would not be meeting with the exiled spiritual leader because it’s become more important to repair relations with China.
Thommessen of the Conservative Party (Høyre) headed the Parliament’s Tibet committee until last autumn, and has been a vocal supporter of defending human rights and condemning abuse. Thommessen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) he nonetheless had decided against any meeting with the Dalai Lama during his visit in May, because overall it was not in Norway’s best interest.
“It has never been the intention from the Norwegian side to not be on speaking terms with China,” he said, referring to the current and ongoing diplomatic freeze between the two countries. “I will not rekindle the current difficult situation. That we’re not in dialogue now is also a human rights issue. We must continually evaluate what is in Norway’s interest. Such an evaluation indicates that, as the country’s highest-ranked politician, I shouldn’t meet him now.”
Relations between Norway and China have been frigid since Chinese dissident and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. It was one of Thommessen’s political colleagues, Jan Tore Sanner of the Conservatives, who had nominated Liu to the Norwegian Nobel Committee and when the committee awarded Liu the prize, China demanded an apology. Chinese officials have continued to believe it is up to Norway to repair the relationship, even though neither the Norwegian government nor the Norwegian parliament has any say in who actually wins the Nobel Peace Prize.
Former supporters fall silent
Thommessen and the now Conservative Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, raised the issue of Tibet in Parliament in 2008. They demanded the government engage more strongly with the human rights issue in China, and keep pressure on the authorities in the wake of the Beijing Olympics.
Thommessen raised the issue again in 2009, calling for the government to hold more talks with Chinese authorities following troubling reports of human rights abuses from Amnesty International. In 2012 he took part in the Tibet committee’s flame relay, raising awareness of more than 100 Tibetan monks and nuns who’d set themselves on fire since 2009 in protest against Chinese oppression.
During a visit to Norway in 2005, the Dalai Lama was received by the the- prime minister, Kjell Magne Bondevik. and top politicians who was holding Thommessen’s position at the time, Jørgen Kosmo. NRK noted that in 2000, the Dalai Lama met with the now Foreign Minister Børge Brende, who led the Tibet committee at the time, and the then parliamentary president Kirsti Kolle Grøndahl.
Solberg’s office avoided responding to the invitation to meet the Dalai Lama this year, saying it was up to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Utenriksdepartementet) to answer for the government. Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen said the same when asked by the foreign press on Monday. Brende had not yet declared his position. Bondevik, who now heads the Oslo Centre for Peace and Human Rights, had not responded either.
Olav Gunnar Ballo, another former leader of the Tibet committee, said it’s a shame Norway’s leading politicians haven’t come out in support of the Dalai Lama, and it’s cowardly that appeasing China now seems to take precedence over human rights issues that were so actively brandished in the past.
China is known for trying to punish countries politically and economically that receive the leader they view as a Tibetan separatist. Norway has supported Tibet since it was occupied by China in 1951, and there’s been general political agreement over raising abuse and human rights issues with Chinese authorities through international diplomatic channels. However, as China becomes a more important trading partner for Norway, the economic impact of good relations has become more significant.
Politicians who will meet with the Dalai Lama include the Liberal (Venstre) leader Trine Skei Grande, the only party leader to accept the invitation so far. Liberal Ketil Kjenseth, who now heads the Tibet committee, will host a reception for the Dalai Lama open to other politicians willing to meet him. The Sami Parliamentary President will also meet the Tibetan leader, as will Thorbjørn Jagland and the rest of the Nobel Committee.