Federal Councillor René Felber welcomes the Dalai Lama in Bern on 19 August 1991.
Federal Councillor René Felber welcomes the Dalai Lama in Bern on 19 August 1991. Swiss National Museum / ASL

The Dalai Lama’s long journey to Bern

For 60 years, Switzerland has been home to the largest Tibetan community in Europe. But it wasn’t until 1991 that the Dalai Lama was received by the Federal Council for the first time.

Thomas Bürgisser

Thomas Bürgisser

Thomas Bürgisser is a historian at the Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland (Dodis) research centre.

Now there he was, on 19 August 1991, in a plain meeting room in Beatrice von Wattenwyl-Haus in Bern, dressed in his Buddhist monk’s robes, with lively eyes behind the tinted glasses, and smiling his famous smile: Tenzin Gyatso, formally known as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. His counterpart was the head of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA), Federal Councillor René Felber. This momentous first visit by the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile to a member of the Federal Council was the culmination of a long and checkered history of relations. The story should be told here.
Meeting of the Dalai Lama and Federal Councillor René Felber in Bern, 19 August 1991.
Meeting of the Dalai Lama and Federal Councillor René Felber in Bern, 19 August 1991. Swiss National Museum / ASL
From an early stage, the Swiss public took a keen interest in the fate of the vast mountain country beyond the distant Himalayas. When troops from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army occupied Tibet in 1950, and in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled to India with his followers following the brutal suppression of an uprising in Lhasa, many in staunchly anti-communist Switzerland expressed solidarity with the oppressed mountain-dwellers. In 1960, construction of a Tibet house began in the Kinderdorf Pestalozzi in Trogen in Appenzell; the Chinese Embassy in Bern immediately began to protest loudly. The Association for Tibetan Homes in Switzerland (VTH), founded in the same year with the involvement of the Swiss Red Cross, received approval in 1961 to take in an initial group of 23 Tibetan refugees from Nepal, offering collective accommodation in eastern Switzerland. At the same time, Olten industrialist Charles Aeschimann began the (now highly controversial) placement of 160 children from Tibet with foster families in Switzerland. In March 1963, the Federal Council finally approved the VTH’s application to “bring 1,000 Tibetan refugees into our country”. Since then, Switzerland has been home to Europe’s largest Tibetan community. Switzerland also worked to support Tibetan refugees locally in Nepal. The Nepali kingdom on the border with China was a priority country for Swiss development cooperation, which was still in its infancy at the time. The assistance programme included a number of agricultural projects, as well as various measures for vocational training and to promote traditional carpet weaving among the exiled Tibetans. Switzerland was therefore of great importance to the Tibetan government in exile in Dharamsala, India. The Dalai Lama requested permission for his personal representative for Europe to set up an office in Geneva. In 1964 the Federal Council granted this permission, on condition that the representative’s activities be limited to religious and cultural issues. The EDA countered China’s protests by referencing Switzerland’s humanitarian tradition, and pointing to the requirements imposed on the representative of the Dalai Lama, who was expected to engage only in activities consistent with Switzerland’s policy of neutrality.
Arrival of Tibetan refugees in Waldstatt (AR) in 1962.
Arrival of Tibetan refugees in Waldstatt (AR) in 1962. ETH Library
When, in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, China’s Foreign Ministry was “ purged” of diplomats and their posts were filled by radical activists, these people took a harder line. Just at this crucial stage, a Tibet Institute was opened in Rikon im Tösstal, a village in Zurich canton, on the initiative of local industrialists Henri and Jacques Kuhn. In July 1967, five Tibetan priests (lamas) landed in Kloten to take on the running of the monastery. At this juncture, the verbal attacks from Beijing took on forms that Bern considered unacceptable. When the Chinese embassy in Bern “demanded”, in a diplomatic note, that Switzerland cease its “support for the Tibetan bandit rebels in their anti-Chinese activities”, this was too much for the EDA. Secretary General Pierre Micheli stated in no uncertain terms that Switzerland, although it was a small country, “has never, in 800 years of history, accepted being subject to the will of foreign states”. In an official announcement, the Federal Council said that it had made sufficient statements to Beijing and would “not be responding to further Chinese démarches in the matter of Tibetan refugees in Switzerland”. Defence Minister Nello Celio, who shepherded the strongly-worded communiqué through the Federal Council on behalf of the absent EDA head, observed tersely that even a breakdown in relations with China would “not be that bad”: “Our export level to China is only about 30 million.” Rarely has the Swiss government dug its heels in so spontaneously and resolutely in defence of its values and refugees.
‘Free Tibet’ demonstration on Zurich’s Limmatquai, March 1979.
‘Free Tibet’ demonstration on Zurich’s Limmatquai, March 1979. Swiss National Museum / ASL
In the slipstream of the People’s Republic’s rapprochement with the USA at the beginning of the 1970s, Switzerland tried again to improve contacts with Beijing. In August 1974, Foreign Minister Pierre Graber became the first Federal Councillor to travel to China, for the opening of a “Swiss Industrial Technology Exhibition”. In the run-up to his visit, the planned Tibet exhibition in the Ethnological Museum of the University of Zurich had caused renewed discord. And in March 1973 the Dalai Lama made another request to visit Switzerland as part of a trip to Europe. After the Federal Council had turned down such requests in 1968 (on the occasion of the inauguration of the Tibet Institute in Rikon) and 1972, after long debate the government finally granted this permission – on condition that the visit of the Tibetans’ supreme religious leader be of a “purely private nature”. The Dalai Lama has subsequently visited Switzerland on a regular basis. In August 1983, when he spoke in an article in the “Tribune de Lausanne” about his relationship with Beijing, and the Chinese embassy made representations about these statements, the EDA recommended to the Dalai Lama that he exercise “greater restraint for the remainder of his stay in Switzerland”. The Dalai Lama also repeatedly requested a formal reception and meeting with a member of the Federal Council. The Swiss government justified its refusal by stating that, while Switzerland was in favour of cultural and religious liberties for the Tibetan minority, it did, in agreement with the international community, regard Tibet as an integral part of the People’s Republic of China. The Federal Council wished to avoid creating the impression, by formally receiving him, that the Dalai Lama was regarded also as the Tibetans’ political leader.
The Dalai Lama at a press conference in Geneva, 1983.
The Dalai Lama at a press conference in Geneva, 1983. Swiss National Museum / ASL
A departure from this policy began to emerge in the aftermath of the “Tiananmen events” in June 1989. Switzerland condemned the violent suppression of the democracy movement by the Chinese regime in very strong terms, and sent “clear signals of its condemnation”. In June 1990 the EDA debated the pros and cons of receiving the Dalai Lama, who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in December 1989. But in the end, the “consideration of Chinese sensitivities” outweighed the “gratification of public opinion” that could have been achieved by this gesture. However, the visitor from Dharamsala was for the first time permitted to meet for a chat with an official representative of the EDA in Rikon, in the form of Ambassador Jean-Pierre Keusch. When the Dalai Lama visited Switzerland again the following year, the Department had changed its tune on the criteria in favour of a reception by the Federal Council: “The Dalai Lama, who is noted for a moderate stance on the Tibet question, has, with his calls for respect for human rights (including the protection of minorities), merited an official expression of solidarity from the Swiss authorities”, as stated in a notice issued by the EDA. At the same time, it was stressed that this contact “does not signal any change in Switzerland’s stance on the status of Tibet under international law”. As anticipated, the Chinese Ambassador in Bern condemned the reception by Federal Councillor Felber as “meddling in China’s internal affairs”. However, the Ambassador’s censure was “remarkably mild” and he emphasised to the EDA “that there should be no polemics as a result of this issue”. The campaign had been a success. No wonder the Dalai Lama was smiling.
The Dalai Lama’s first meeting with a Federal Councillor, 1991 (in German). SRF

Gemein­sa­me Forschung

This text is the product of a collaboration between the Swiss National Museum and the Diplomatic Documents of Switzerland research centre (Dodis). The SNM is researching images relating to Switzerland’s foreign policy in the archives of the agency Actualités Suisses Lausanne (ASL), and Dodis puts these photographs in context using the official source material. The files for 1991 were be made public on the Dodis online database in January 2022. The documents cited in the text are available online: dodis.ch/C2311.

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