Dalai Lama's visit brings political tempest to Taiwan

The Tibetan leader said his visit to comfort typhoon survivors was purely humanitarian. But will his visit harm China-Taiwan ties?

TAIPEI, TAIWAN – The Dalai Lama toured storm-lashed southern Taiwan Monday, at the start of a politically charged visit to comfort victims of Typhoon Morakot.

The Dalai Lama insists his visit has only a humanitarian purpose. “There's no political agenda,” he told reporters Monday. But his presence has nonetheless touched off controversy.

China brands the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader a "splittist" and loudly protests against any nation hosting him.

Beijing is especially irate this time around, as the Dalai Lama is visiting the self-governed island it considers a Tibet-in-waiting – an inalienable part of Chinese territory destined to return to the fold.

China sees twin troubles

The Dalai Lama has close contacts with Taiwan's pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, and local DPP leaders invited him for the current visit – his third to Taiwan since 1997.

Beijing sees the Dalai Lama and the DPP as separatists-in-arms. “The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has ulterior motives to instigate the Dalai Lama, who has long been engaged in separatist activities, to visit Taiwan,” said an unidentified spokesman for China's Taiwan Affairs Office, according to a report published on its website.

“We resolutely oppose this and our position is firm and clear ... The Dalai Lama's visit to Taiwan is bound to have a negative influence on the relations between the mainland and Taiwan.”

In Taiwan, the Dalai Lama brushed aside those allegations. "Someone asked me to come and share their [typhoon victims'] sadness," he told reporters. "So that's my main reason to come here," he said.

Typhoon Morakot tore across the island from Aug. 7 to 9, dumping record amounts of rain and triggering floods and landslides that killed 571, with 106 more missing and presumed dead.

On Mondy the Dalai Lama led prayers at Shiaolin, a mountain village where several hundred were buried alive under a massive landslide.

Dalai Lama backs closer cross-strait ties

The Dalai Lama restated his position that he was not seeking Tibet independence or separation, and added that he thought Taiwan "should have very, very close relations with mainland China."

Since 2002, the India-based Dalai Lama has pursued a so-called "middle way" in talks with China, seeking greater autonomy and religious freedom for Tibetans through non-violent methods. The latest round of talks last year, however, ended without agreement and with frustration on both sides.

Meanwhile, some fear the Dalai Lama's controversial visit could be a setback for cross-strait relations, just as those relations had begun to enjoy a period of unprecedented warming.

Under Taiwan's China-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou, the island has, since last summer, inked a raft of cross-strait economic deals and sought to avoid irking Beijing. Mr. Ma's Kuomintang party has sharply criticized the opposition for playing politics with the Dalai Lama's visit.

Li Peng, a professor at the Taiwan Research Institute of Xiamen University, says China will be watching to see if any Ma government officials meet with the Dalai Lama. If so, "China will react very strongly," said Mr. Li, but otherwise would likely limit its response to verbal protests.

"It depends on what the Ma Ying-jeou government does in the next few days," said Li.

‘Get out!’

A small group of supporters of Taiwan-China unification protested at the airport upon the Dalai Lama's arrival. Some scuffled with security guards, and their shouts of "get out" alternated with Dalai Lama supporters' shouts of "welcome." On Monday in southern Taiwan, another small group held up a banner and chanted in protest against the visit.

Meanwhile, the Dalai Lama's hosts on Monday scaled back the visit, canceling a press conference this morning and two lectures scheduled for today and later this week.

For his part, the Dalai Lama appeared unfazed by all the controversy. Asked by a reporter what he thought of the protests, he said, "I love it – that is the indication of freedom of expression. Very good."

"I'm personally committed to the promotion of democracy," he said in remarks broadcast on Taiwan television. "So different opinions, different views, expressed without fear – wonderful."

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