Democracy, Tibet and more on Sydney University’s Uturn

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Colin Chapman
President AIIA (NSW)

NOTES ON THE NEWS: Arriving back in Jakarta after a four-day trip to see the orangutans in the dense and telecoms-free jungles of Kalimantan, it was heartening to read an email from my AIIA NSW board colleague Phoebe Alexander that the leadership at Sydney University had decided, after all, to welcome the Dalai Lama to the campus in June.

Readers of this column last week will recall my scathing comments about the decision of the vice chancellor, Michael Spebce, and the director of the Institute of Democracy and Human Rights, John Keane, to withdraw an invitation to the Dalai Lama to speak; indeed to disassociate the university from his visit.

I drew an unfavourable comparison between Sydney’s attitude and that of the University of Cambridge, which last weekend rolled out the red carpet for a two day event centred round the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet, now under Chinese rule.

Thanks to student protests, the university’s tarnished management has had second thoughts. But there are still many questions to be asked. There has been a lack of transparency about the pressures that led Spence and Keane to drop the invitation to the Dalai Lama.

And access to the revived event is to be limited to the university’s students. The media is not welcome, nor are scholars or those from the wider community, including those with a passion for international affairs.

Earlier this month, the AIIA NSW welcomed a group of Chinese Tibetologists, including some from Lhasa, to the Glover Cottages. Sponsored by the Chinese government, these academics presented a positive view of Tibet, discussed the process for the selection of the next Dalai Lama, and willingly and democratically answered questions from those with a dissenting point of view.

My members would have welcome the opportunity to hear the opposite point of view from the Dalai Lama, and when Sydney University gave him a less than polite brush off, we offered him our platform, but by then the university had seen the error of its ways.

Even so, the statement by Keane’s Institute for Democracy and Human Rights is curious. In a short statement, he claimed, “the University of Sydney and IDHR remain firmly committed to the principle that academics are free to invite to our campus anyone who has a legitimate contribution to make to public debate.”

Well John, what went wrong? If the above is the case why did you send the following email to your vice-chancellor, as reported by ABC’s 7.30? “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. 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.”

If we are to take the Institute for Democracy seriously, then we deserve a proper explanation, as to why it did not resist the vice chancellor in the first place. This Friday the institute will run a session on Civil Disobedience; it seems to me this was an occasion when some disobedience of the vice chancellor was in order.

Many members of the university’s faculty are shaking their heads.

Talking of democracy, I’m delighted that the AIIA is hosting the only public talk by that great democrat, Radek Sikorsky, the foreign minister of Poland, and a true European statesman. Mr Sikorsky, on an official visit to Australia as the guest of Senator Bob Carr, will address us on the problems of Europe and “Poland and Europe in the Asian Century”.

The event is free and open to all, but I’m sorry to say that The Glover Cottages will be packed to overflowing. However the excellent APAC channel will be running Sikorski’s address in full on Fox TV, and we will also put it on this web site.

Colin Chapman is the President of the Australian Institute of International Affairs.

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