JOHANNESBURG - Until a few weeks ago, says Lawrence Seretse, editor of The Botswana Gazette, few people in this nation of two million people even knew who the Dalai Lama was.
But now, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader is making headlines in Botswana as it prepares to host him August 17-19 for a human rights conference in the capital, Gaborone.
China, which happens to be one of Botswana’s largest trading partners, has repeatedly objected to the visit. The objections carry weight because China is a leading investor in the Southern African nation, reaching a high of more than $1 billion in direct investment in 2011.
China says the Himalayan region of Tibet has been part of its realm for more than seven centuries and considers the Dalai Lama to be a dangerous separatist. He has led a shadow Tibetan government in India since he fled into exile in 1959.
Botswana’s government spokesman, Jeff Ramsay, described the Dalai Lama's planned visit.
“He’s coming here on a private visit, to take part in a seminar … so it’s a kind of academic seminar, over three days," he told VOA. "... He may meet with the president. The president indicated that that’s a possibility.”
If those two statements — a private visit that includes a meeting with the head of state — seem contradictory, that’s because, Seretse says, they are.
He says the government is playing a dangerous game by not taking a clear stance on the visit. Neighboring South Africa has on three occasions bowed to Chinese pressure by not granting the spiritual leader a visa.
China has snubbed other nations for hosting the Dalai Lama — most notably, Beijing suspended high-level diplomatic ties with Britain after then-Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama in 2012.
China also opposed former President Barack Obama's meetings with the spiritual leader, but did not follow those concerns with concrete actions.
Seretse says he sees merit in the argument that Botswana is a sovereign nation and should be free to decide whom to host, and in the argument that Botswana should show support for human rights activists by inviting the Dalai Lama.
But, he says, governments cannot afford to be vague, and that Botswana’s government needs to make its position clearer.
“We as a country haven’t clearly stated what we want, and what we are going to do if anything happens," he told VOA. "What we have been doing is that we have been going back and forth with contradictory statements.”
China’s government has condemned the pending visit.
"Chinese side has made clear through the diplomatic channel that Dalai Lama is the head of a well-organized political group who has long been engaging in anti-China separatist activities with the attempt to split Tibet from China," reads the latest statement posted by the Chinese Embassy in Gaborone.
"Therefore, permitting Dalai Lama’s attempted visit is an act of providing stage for him to carry out anti-China separatist activities, which is an unfriendly behavior of apparently interfering China’s internal affairs."
Beijing has not specified what action it may take if the Dalai Lama does visit, but Ramsay says his government is confident that China and Botswana will remain friends.
“Well, we hope whatever differences they have will not harm the genuine friendship and mutual cooperation that we have built up with the People’s Republic of China since 1975," he said. "Certainly the position of Botswana remains a One China Policy.”
In the meantime, relations continue. Last week, China's government gave a $1 million grant to Botswana for flood relief efforts, with the Chinese ambassador saying, "whether China was poor or rich, whether Botswana was poor or rich, China never stopped its assistance to the Botswana friend.”