GABORONE (Reuters) - Botswana will host the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, next month, officials said on Thursday, risking a backlash from China, a major investor in the African country's economy.
The Dalai Lama is expected to address a human rights conference in the capital Gaborone on August 17-19 and will also meet Botswana's president during the trip.
"President Ian Khama will meet the Dalai Lama when he is in Botswana. But the president's attendance at the conference, for the official opening or otherwise, will be determined by his schedule," Khama's office? said in a statement.
The Dalai Lama, who lives in exile in India, has long been at loggerheads over Tibet with China, which brands him a reactionary and a separatist. The Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, says he seeks greater rights, including religious freedom, and true autonomy for Tibetans.
Neighbouring South Africa has denied a visa to the Buddhist monk three times since 2009 in what opposition parties and Archbishop Desmond Tutu say shows the extent of China's sway over Pretoria.
China's fast-growing demand for raw materials has made it one of the biggest investors in Africa and its largest trade partner. Chinese state-owned companies have been awarded contracts worth billions of pula to build roads, dams, power stations and airports in Botswana.
Tang Shenpieng, the director of politics at the Chinese Embassy in Botswana declined to immediately comment, saying his office would issue a statement on the Dalai Lama's visit soon.
But Lin Songtian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry's director-general for African affairs, told reporters last Wednesday in Beijing that allowing the Dalai Lama to visit Botswana would set back relations between the two countries.
"Botswana should not harm such a true friend and reliable development partner as China and challenge the core interest of China and the dignity of Chinese people," he was reported as saying.
Writing by Tiisetso Motsoeneng; Editing by Catherine Evans