THE Dalai Lama is a man of peace but he creates divisions and arguments in every country he visits. He is about to touchdown in Australia to spread his message where his imminent visit has flummoxed political leaders.
A visit to any country by the Tibetan spiritual leader is always preceded by dire warnings from Beijing of "interference" in China's affairs. The Dalai Lama fled to India in 1959 after a failed uprising against Communist rule, nine years after the Chinese army marched into Tibet. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
The Dalai Lama says he wants greater autonomy, not independence, for his predominantly Buddhist homeland, but China considers him a separatist and accuses him of continuing to promote Tibetan independence.
Recently, the 71-year-old exiled Tibetan spiritual leader called off a visit to Brussels amid Chinese "objections" ahead of an important Belgian trade mission to China.
There is particular sensitivity for the government of John Howard with a visit to Australia by the leader of one of the world's major religions. The issue is trade? China buys huge amounts of Australia's gas and coal and recently overtook Japan as Australia's second largest trading partner.
In 1996, shortly after Howard became prime minister, he met the Dalai Lama as a "religious leader" not a political leader. Beijing was infuriated and threatened trade sanctions. The megaphone diplomacy apparently worked because Howard refused to meet the Dalai Lama on his next visit in 2002.
After that visit, a senior foreign affairs official told a parliamentary hearing that it was official policy of the Howard government that no ministers would meet the Tibetan spiritual leader.
The then opposition leader Simon also refused to meet the Dalai Lama and delegated the meeting to his then foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd, who is now the opposition leader. A week ago The Canberra Times sparked national debate by revealing that Howard and Rudd would not say whether they would meet the important visitor. After further prodding, they said they would not meet the Dalai Lama.
The Senate president also revealed that the government would ban an official reception in parliament for the Dalai Lama.
While Australians like trading with the region, they do not like their leaders "kow-towing" to other capitals. Therefore many callers to radio programmes complained that Howard and Rudd were being weak in trying to appease Beijing. They pointed out that visiting leaders of the Muslim and Jewish faiths are treated hospitably in predominantly Christian Australia.
It's an election year and Howard and Rudd, stung by the criticism, promptly did a back flip and declared they would "check their diaries" to see if they could meet the distinguished Buddhist leader.
The change of heart has prompted heated responses from Beijing, which issued a thinly-veiled warning to Australian political leaders not to meet the exiled Tibetans spiritual leader, urging them to "stay on high alert" to actions and words aimed at splitting China.
Howard appeared to reject the warning, saying he would make his decisions on what he thought was right. "If I am able to meet the Dalai Lama, I will,'' he said. The statement leaves him ample scope not to have a meeting, especially as the Dalai Lama has a packed schedule.
The Dalai Lama is visiting several cities during his national tour of Australia next month. During his brief visit to Canberra, he will address the National Press Club and attend an inter-faith rally at a football arena. At the rally he will be joined on stage by representatives of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian clerics. The event promises to be a fitting reception for the distinguished visitor, as well as a showcase of acceptance of the various faiths.
The politicians who worry they will jeopardise trade by meeting the Dalai Lama should have no fear. Beijing is now buying uranium from Australia, along with the other resources, and will continue to do so, to feed the growing energy needs of its huge population.
Ordinary Australians have no such qualms about meeting the Tibetan spiritual leader, with the evidence being the enormous rush for the free and paid places at his lectures.
Ross Peake is a Canberra-based political analyst