— Thailand has denied a visa to the sister of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fearing it could upset relations with China.
A top Thai Foreign Ministry official said Thursday that the Jetsun Pema and her husband had applied for visas to attend a cultural festival in Bangkok at Thailand's Embassy in New Delhi, India, but were rejected. About 30 other Tibetan exiles in India were granted visas to attend a "Festival of Tibetan Spirituality, Arts and Cultures" that begins Friday.
"We welcome cultural diversity and have no problem with people coming in and participating in the activities," said Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, secretary to the foreign minister, but he added: "In this case, we fear giving permission will be linked to politics. We don't want to be in the middle of international conflicts."
Thani Thongpakdi, a Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman, said the visa applications were rejected because the government does not allow people or groups to "use Thailand as a base to conduct activities detrimental to other countries."
China claims Tibet has been part of its territory for centuries but sent communist forces to occupy the Himalayan region in 1950. Many Tibetans say they were functionally independent for most of their history and accuse China of undermining Tibet's unique Buddhist culture and flooding the region with Chinese migrants.
Although the Dalai Lama is revered in many parts of the world, Beijing reviles him as a separatist, accusing him of plotting to overthrow Chinese rule. The spiritual leader says he only seeks great autonomy for Tibetans, not independence.
"We could understand the (foreign) ministry's points, but we couldn't quite accept China's huge influence on the matter," said event coordinator Apaporn Kumjaroen of the Sathirakoses-Nagapradipa Foundation. "The entry visa rejection will only bring more attention to Tibet and shed a bad light on China."
China is a major trading partner of Thailand, as it is for many Southeast Asian countries. Ethnic ties also play a part in their relations – most of Bangkok's political and business elite have some Chinese ancestry.
Apaporn said the foundation had attempted to have the Dalai Lama as a guest speaker, but his entry visa has been denied for the past decade.
The Tibetan spiritual leader's last visit to Thailand was in 1972. Three years later, Thailand established diplomatic relations with Beijing. The Dalai Lama has met with the Thai king, Thai Buddhism's Supreme Patriarch, and the Thai prime minister in Bangkok on different occasions