Khama defies Botswana government with Dalai Lama trip

Friday March 8 2019

Botswana’s Ian Khama. PHOTO | FILE

Former Botswana’s president Ian Khama. PHOTO | FILE 

By PETER DUBE
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Former Botswana president Ian Khama is expected to deliver a keynote speech on Sunday at the controversial 60th anniversary of Tibetan uprising.

Mr Khama announced in a post on his Facebook page this week that he had received the invitation from the Dalai Lama, the highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism.

In the statement, the ex-president said he would leave for India, where the spiritual leader is exiled, on Friday.

The trip, however, flies in the teeth of the new Botswana government that fears it would rub one of its key economic allies, China, the wrong way.

The Dalai Lama fled into exile in northern India in 1959 following a failed uprising against Chinese rule. China brands him a dangerous separatist and castigates any foreign nation that has relations with him.

China had sent troops into Tibet in 1950.

“Ian Khama has been invited by The Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) to give the key note address at the 60th Anniversary of the Tibet Uprising in Dharamsala, India on the 10th March, 2019 and also to have an audience with His Holiness The Dalai Lama,” reads the Facebook post.

President Mokgweetsi Masisi and his predecessor do not see eye-to-eye following a fall-out after what initially appeared to be a smooth power transition last April. The visit is likely to further damage the already torn relations.

In 2017, president Khama stood up to Beijing saying that his country was not “a China colony.”

This was after China stepped up the warning that it would not tolerate another country doing anything that harms its core interests following a planned visit by the Dalai Lama to address a human rights conference in Gaborone and meet President Khama.

Initially, the government had been forced to distance itself from the conference fearing China backlash. The Dalai Lama eventually cancelled his trip, citing exhaustion, which prevented the diplomatic tiff from escalating.

But now Mr Khama, having stepped down last year, seems to be offhand about any likely fallout he may cause as he will not have to deal with it himself.

President Masisi’s permanent secretary, Mr Carter Morupisi, warned that Mr Khama’s trip could stir a diplomatic row with China.

“We expect him to understand as a former head of state, the position of Botswana on international matters. It is important as citizens of this country to appreciate and respect the sovereignty and the rights of Botswana when it comes to international relations,” Mr Morupisi said.

“It is important to uphold and respect conventions and treaties that Botswana is party to. We hope that for the image of the country at international level, Khama does not undertake the trip.”

Relations between President Masisi and Mr Khama have worsened in recent weeks as Botswana prepares for what should be a watershed election in October.

For the first time in the history of the ruling Botswana Democratic Party (BDP), President Masisi faces a challenge, with former cabinet minister, Ms Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, a candidate for the party presidency in next month’s congress.

Mr Khama has openly backed Ms Venson-Moitoi much to President Masisi’s annoyance. The President has accused his predecessor of undermining authority.

It is the first time that Botswana has experienced such festering animosity within the ruling party, and by extension, government, since independence from Britain in 1966.

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