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Dalai Lama to Pray for Victims of Taiwan Typhoon

August 31, 2009

By Chinmei Sung
Augist 31, 2009

The Dalai Lama began a five-day visit to Taiwan
to console survivors of the island’s deadliest
storm in half a century, as China said the
Tibetan spiritual leader’s trip could have a “negative influence” on relations.

The government in Beijing "resolutely" opposes
the visit and will keep a close eye on the
situation, the official Xinhua News Agency
reported, citing a spokesman for the State Council Taiwan Affairs Office.

The Dalai Lama, accused by China of separatist
activities, said the trip isn’t political. "I’m a
Buddhist monk, and when someone asks me to share
their sadness, it’s my moral responsibility to
accept,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner told
reporters late yesterday as he arrived at Taoyuan
International Airport. "I have no political agenda."

The visit may endanger efforts by President Ma
Ying-jeou to further strengthen ties with China,
the island’s biggest trading partner. Ma agreed
to the visit, organized by opposition
politicians, as his popularity slumped amid
criticism of his government’s slow response this
month to the devastation caused by Typhoon Morakot.

The storm pummeled Taiwan Aug. 6-9, dumping the
most rain ever recorded in any 48-hour span,
according to the Central Weather Bureau. It
killed at least 543 people and caused floods and
landslides that buried villages and destroyed roads throughout the south.

Storm-Hit Areas

The Dalai Lama will visit areas hit by the storm
later today and canceled a news conference so he
can spend more time with survivors, Taiwan’s
Tibetan Religious Foundation said in a statement.

He arrived at Kaohsiung high-speed rail station
at 1 a.m. local time today accompanied by Chen
Chu, mayor of the southern city, and flanked by
dozens of police and security guards. He declined
to speak to the almost 100 waiting journalists,
while thanking followers also gathered at the
station, smiling and pressing his palms in the traditional Buddhist greeting.

"He’s here for the typhoon victims, not for
politics," said Chen Meng-hui, 39, a tea merchant
who waited past midnight at the station to see
the spiritual leader. “Taiwan is independent from
China, so why should we listen to them? We have freedom of religion here."

China views the Dalai Lama, a rallying figure for
Tibetan independence supporters, as a divisive
force and has reacted angrily toward countries that host him.

‘Cultural Genocide’

The Dalai Lama fled Tibet after a failed
rebellion against Chinese forces in 1959. He
accuses the government in Beijing of committing
“cultural genocide” there and says mass migration
of ethnic Han Chinese has made Tibetans a
minority in their own land. China says it
peacefully liberated Tibet and saved its people from serfdom.

"Ma doesn’t really have a choice but to let the
Dalai Lama come, as this is his chance to win
support from constituents in the south, worst hit
by the typhoon,” said Yang Tai-shuenn, a
political scientist at the Chinese Culture
University in Taipei. "Of course China won’t like
it. But Ma can try to amend relations by further
relaxing restrictions on cross-strait investments and other economic agendas.”

Survivors say rescue efforts in the wake of the
typhoon were too slow after the government
initially rejected offers of assistance from
countries including the U.S. and Israel. A TVBS
opinion poll on Aug. 12 showed 47 percent
disapproved of Ma’s rescue efforts, while 51
percent disapproved of Premier Liu Chao-shiuan.

‘Secure More Votes’

Letting the Dalai Lama visit is a "calculated
decision" by Ma "to secure more votes from the
south" in December’s local elections, said Andrew
Yang, secretary-general of Taiwan’s Chinese
Council for Advanced Policy Studies in Taipei.
Ma’s ruling Kuomintang party "may suffer a defeat
if he doesn’t allow the visit," Yang added

The Dalai Lama has visited Taiwan at least twice,
in 1997 and 2001, the Foreign Ministry in Taipei said.

Ma, who in December ruled out a visit by the
Tibetan leader, saying the timing wasn’t
appropriate, has no plans to meet him, according
to Presidential Office spokesman Wang Yu- chi.
“We have made no arrangement” for such a meeting,
Wang said by telephone on Aug. 29. Ties with
China won’t be harmed by the visit, Wang said last week.

Closer Ties

Ma wants closer ties with China to revive an
economy that slid into a recession in the fourth
quarter of last year. Gross domestic product
contracted 7.54 percent in the second quarter of
2009, after declining a revised 10.13 percent
three months earlier, the government said this month.

Taiwan and China have been ruled separately since
Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang, or Nationalists,
fled to the island after being defeated by Mao
Zedong’s Communists in 1949. China regards Taiwan
as part of its territory and has threatened to use force to reclaim it.

Ma abandoned his predecessor’s pro-independence
stance after taking over the presidency in May
2008. Direct flights, shipping and postal
services across the Taiwan Strait resumed in
December, ending a six-decade ban. In June,
Taiwan opened 100 industries and projects to Chinese investments.

"Whatever Ma does, he has to make sure he isn’t
endorsing Tibet’s political agenda," Yang said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Chinmei
Sung in Taipei at
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
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