WASHINGTON (AFP) - Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, took a rare swipe at the United States, saying he was puzzled why residents in the capital of the world's oldest democracy have no Congressional voting rights.
The Tibetan leader said it was "quite strange" that people in Washington DC had no voting Representatives and no Senators, an issue that has dogged the United States for the last 200 years.
It cropped up again when the Dalai Lama, on a visit to a public school in the US capital, was asked by a student why US citizens in DC were denied the right, and what would he do if his citizens were deprived of such a privilege.
The 70-year-old leader pondered for a while and shot back the same question to Bernard Igbedian, a 17-year-old pupil of Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts.
When Igbedian said he saw no reason for the denial of voting rights, the Dalai Lama, himself battling Chinese authorities for greater autonomy for Tibetans, said the people should speak up and find out why.
"Then you should find out. If there are sufficient reasons, we have to think more carefully, but if there is no reason, then shout," the maroon-robed leader told the student, drawing laughter among the 200 odd students and visitors.
He said he wondered why a "small pocket" of people living in the world's "champion of democracy, liberty and freedom" lacked full voting rights and representation in Congress.
"Quite strange, quite strange," he remarked, drawing further laughter.
But the issue of denial of equal rights to the almost 600,000 US citizens living in the 63 square mile (163 square kilometer) DC area, the size of Paris, is no laughing matter, said Kevin Kiger, spokesman for DC Vote, an advocacy group campaigning for full voting representation in Congress for DC residents.
"I am excited that an international leader like the Dalai Lama would share his thoughts on democracy in the US capital city, under a government claiming to be the standard-bearer of democracy," Kiger said.
Washington, DC, is the only capital city of any democracy in the world that denies its residents voting rights in the national legislature, he said.
DC residents had the same voting rights as other citizens after the American Revolution, but lost them when their area was chosen to be the seat of the federal government. Under the Constitution of 1787, Congress was given exclusive legislative authority over the capital.
They have since been allowed to vote in presidential elections but Washington, which is also called the District of Columbia (DC) and is not part of any state, is not represented in the US Senate.
Its resident have only one member in the House of Representatives, who is able to vote in committee sessions, but cannot vote on final legislation that reaches the floor of the House.
DC Vote charges that the United States is violating international law when it denies the district's residents equal voting rights in Congress.
"The leaders of other countries are using this fact as a bargaining chip, claiming that until the US brings democracy to the residents of its capital, it can forget about preaching democracy to them," said Ilir Zherka, executive Director of DC Vote.