Why Taiwan invited the Dalai Lama to visit

Beijing, which vilifies the Tibetan spiritual leader, criticized the move. But the invitation may temper the wrath of southern Taiwanese, who lambasted Ma's handling of the typhoon.

By , Correspondent

What a difference a typhoon makes.

Just last December, Taiwanese president Ma Ying-jeou told reporters that "the timing wasn't appropriate" for a visit to Taiwan by the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader-in-exile.

The subtext then: Relations between Taiwan and China were better than ever, and President Ma didn't want to upset the apple cart by hosting the man Beijing reviles as a "splittist" who heads up a treasonous "clique."

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But today, Taiwan's government said the Dalai Lama would be allowed to visit, to tour areas affected by typhoon Morakot and comfort victims.

Why Ma's about-face? To be sure, the typhoon's deadly aftermath – including landslides and floods that may have killed more than 650 people – has made Taiwan the beneficiary of a host of celebrity visits, fundraisers, and sympathy. That makes the timing of a Dalai Lama visit much more appropriate.

But as with the comments in December, there's more here than meets the eye. The pro-independence opposition controls many of the areas in southern Taiwan that were worst hit by flooding and landslides after the typhoon. It was they who invited the Dalai Lama – putting Ma in a political bind. (One analyst went so far as to call it "blackmail.")

His government is already on the back foot after two weeks of relentless criticisms over its slow and disorganized response to the typhoon. And Ma is vulnerable to charges of caring more about China than his own Taiwanese people – especially pro-independence southerners.

So he had two bad choices: let the Dalai Lama in, and incur China's wrath (which has already happened), or refuse him, and incur southerners' wrath.

The airwaves here have been filled with images of disaster victims yelling at, scolding, and crying in front of Ma as he belatedly tours hard-hit areas.

After several days of such treatment, a few rhetorical barbs from Beijing probably seemed like a small price to pay.

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