ABC 7.30 | 17 April 2013
Students at Sydney University scored a major coup when the Tibetan spiritual leader agreed to speak at their campus during his upcoming short visit to Sydney in June.
But the ABC’s 7.30 has obtained emails revealing the university, which has close links to China, went to great lengths to wash its hands of the iconic monk.
Campus authorities ticked off on the Dalai Lama’s visit in January, and the university’s new Institute for Democracy and Human Rights (IDHR) began to organise the event at the Seymour Centre.
One of the organisers was Sophie Bouris, a mature age student with links to Australia’s Tibetan community.
“We envisaged groups of students from Sydney University and other universities would be invited to the Seymour Centre and His Holiness would speak on the subject of why education matters, and they would be invited to ask him questions,” she said.
But not everyone shares Ms Bouris’s enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama or the cause that he is seen to represent: Tibetan independence from China.
The Dalai Lama no longer makes political statements but the Chinese government blames him for the dramatic suicides of Tibetan monks.
Around 100 monks have died since 2009, protesting human rights abuses by the Chinese authorities.
Ms Bouris says just weeks ago, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Sydney University started to get complicated.
“I was told by various people that the initial conditions of the event was that: the logo of Sydney University could not be used. There could be no media. No Tibetans could be there,” she said.
“No marketing could be done external to the university, and no external students.
“And then, on April 2, the event was cancelled.”
7.30 has obtained emails between IDHR director Professor John Keane and the university’s vice-chancellor, Michael Spence.
“This is to confirm that the decision was taken to withdraw our support for hosting His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s planned speech at the University on June 18th,” Professor Keane’s email said.
“It…will be moved to an off-campus location, and … no member of staff or associate of the IDHR will formally be involved in organising that event.
“I am of course happy to talk with you further about the reasons why we have taken these difficult decisions.”
The vice-chancellor’s reply exudes a sense of relief.
“Thank you so much for your skill in dealing with this situation so effectively and in the best interests of researchers across the University. I think that the negotiated solution meets all the concerns,” Dr Spence wrote.
Professor Stuart Rees, who works at the University of Sydney and also directs the Sydney Peace Foundation, says the cancellation raises serious questions.
“The students wanted to stage an event … the university then withdrew its support,” he said.
“Whether they didn’t think he was an appropriate person to have intellectually or politically, or whether they withdrew support because of outside pressures, I’m not sure.
“What has happened now raises the question of human rights in Tibet, human rights in China, freedom of speech across the University of Sydney, indeed across Australia.”
The university’s China Studies Centre boasts of its close relationship with Chinese government and business.
The centre admits it was involved in the discussions about the Dalai Lama event, but says it did not try to block it.
A university spokesman says logistics were the problem, with university holidays in June and most students would be away.
It says it suggested an alternative: involving other universities or holding the event at another venue.
“The Dalai Lama’s office agreed to an alternative proposal for him to address a wider group of students from across a number of universities in the city, including from the University of Sydney,” the statement said.
“As it will be the Dalai Lama’s last day in Sydney, his office suggested it be held at the hotel where the Dalai Lama will be staying, with his address streamed online for public access.”