Dalai Lama incident spoils China’s image in Sri Lanka

China’s efforts to gain the space it lost in Sri Lanka to India have hit yet another stumbling block after it vehemently opposed the invitation to Tibetan Buddhist spiritual guru Dalai Lama.

Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country and China’s record of treatment of religious minorities especially Tibetan Buddhists has not been good. China’s image has received a dent among Sri Lankan people after Chinese projects turned inviable and are perceived to be the major reason for the current financial crisis. In such a scenario, China’s intervention in Sri Lanka’s personal matters, specifically sensitive religious issues, can spoil its image among people of Sri Lanka. Many people have vented their anger on social media.

Sri Lanka is crucial for China in terms of growing its influence in the Indian Ocean region and keeping its Asian rival India in check. China made considerable gains when Sri Lanka became a part of its Belt Road Initiative (BRI). However, the same project was seen as the major reason for the ongoing financial crisis in Sri Lanka. Chinese-built Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport has received the tag of the world’s emptiest airport while Sri Lanka lost sovereignty over Hambantota Port for failure in paying loans extended by Beijing. Sri Lankan had earlier protested against their country becoming a “Chinese colony.”[1]

Sri Lanka is going through the worst-ever economic crisis and many have blamed China’s “debt-trap” diplomacy for the situation, though Beijing refused the allegations.Interestingly, top Sri Lankan Buddhist monks had extended an invitation to Dalai Lama as they believed his blessings would help their country overcome the financial mess. “If he goes to Sri Lanka, many thousands of tourists will come to Sri Lanka which will boost the economy because we are in a crisis situation. We will be blessed and the economy will also be boosted,” said Waskaduwa Mahindananda Mahanayaka Thero, one of these monks.[2]

Around six months ago, Dalai Lama too offered prayers for Sri Lanka to fight its economic crisis successfully.[3] He had extended his good wishes to Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka as well. Against this backdrop, China’s threats to Sri Lankan government over the invitation to Dalai Lama have not gone well with Sri Lankans. Chinese Embassy blamed Dalai Lama for not being a “simple monk” but a “separatist.” People in Sri Lanka called China’s interference a violation of their constitution and religious freedom.[4] “Careful when you play with Buddhist sentiments of Sri Lanka. It will backfire,” said Sri Lankan Kapilan Sachchithananthan.[5]

Sri Lankan newspaper Sunday Times slammed China for its “audacity” to tell Sri Lanka what to do. It also took a dig at China saying the Dalai Lama’s visit “resurrects China’s invasion and occupation of the once free mountainous Buddhist Kingdom on the ‘roof of the world’”.[6]Sri Lankan named Ashan Mendis said on Twitter “Great soon the Chinese will dictate our entire foreign policy. So what if the Dalai Lama is a simple monk.”[7]Another Sri Lankan Mohamed Aashsd said “China always destroys other countries, now it is administering to SriLanka. How can China pressure Sri Lanka to cancel the Dalai Lama’s visit when Sri Lanka badly needs tourism?”[8]

While the government of Sri Lanka has made any official comment on the Dalai Lama episode, public sentiment has grown against China. There have been allegations of China interfering in the succession of the Dalai Lama and carrying out suppressive policies in Tibet. A year ago, top Tibetan monk Ling Rinpoche had during a press event criticised China for “inhuman and bestial atrocities” on Tibetans and the destruction of Buddhist culture and literature.[9]China’s image as anti-Buddhist is only going to further dent its prospects in Sri Lanka. Pro-India sentiments are on the rise in the island country as New Delhi helped Sri Lanka amid the financial crisis.Sri Lanka has thanked India for the “generous support” that helped the country “to regain some measure of economic and financial stability.”[10][11]In such a situation, China ruffling feathers on religious issues would only hamper its image and prospects in Sri Lanka.